Virginia, 1607. As the English establish a settlement in Jamestown, disgraced soldier of fortune John Smith (Farrell) leads an expedition to establish trade with the Native Americans. Smith is captured by a tribe but released by the chief (August Schellen
Where there were some 21 years between Terrence Malick’s second (Days Of Heaven) and third (The Thin Red Line) films, there has been only a breezy seven years between the third and this one. But Malickites who may have feared that he rushed off any old tripe in such a short space of time can rest assured — his reinvigoration of the Pocahontas myth is the director working near the peak of his powers. Far too daring to trouble the Academy, far too niche to worry about opening weekends, The New World finds poetry in emotion (and vice versa) and once again reminds us that movies are far too rich to be the domain of the storytellers only.
From frame one, you know you’re deep in Malick country. The film begins with a virtually dialogue-free, ten-minute sequence. To the strains of James Horner in minimalist, near-Philip Glass mode, the arrival of three English ships docking on the James River becomes a joyous set-piece of discovery and wonder. As the Europeans subsequently battle the Native Americans during the creation of the Jamestown settlement, Malick tempers the love story, action sequences and cuts of tribal life with his favourite concerns — a couple at odds with societal constraints, the primitive versus the modern, the purity of nature versus human hubris.
What could be a dry history lesson is turned into something unique and quietly heartfelt. Yet what really dazzles about The New World is that it is like looking at life through different eyes. In other hands, Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas’ (Q’Orianka Kilcher) initial courtship as they prance through fields could have been Pastoral Romance 101 (remember Attack Of The Clones?), but Malick makes it both sweet and affecting, conveying how the couple come alive to each other and their surroundings through images alone. Despite being Malick’s most straightforward narrative since Badlands — the joyous courtship gives way to a downbeat study of loss, as Pocahontas believes Smith to be dead and is integrated into life with the white settlers who incongruously name her Rebecca — he still imbues the rituals and rhythms of 17th century life with a visual/aural lyricism that reaches places CGI can’t touch. As perhaps befits a stranger in a strange land, Farrell spends much of the movie looking befuddled and bewildered. Christian Bale, who turns up in a touching, tender final third as an aristocrat who takes Pocahontas back to England, underplays to a tee, letting his innate decency eke out under a lifetime of restraint. But, performance-wise, the movie belongs to 15 year-old newcomer Kilcher, who bursts with energy and curiousity early on, her innocence giving way to a touching study of grief as her world crumbles around her. It’s fresh, instinctive and — in a just world — an award-winning performance.
Yet take note: The New World will most certainly not appeal to everyone. The pace is so slow, it would have to pull over to let a funeral go by. There are competing voiceover narrations, unclear character motivations and untold pauses for breath; Malick revels in repetitions of images of burbling water, birds taking off, burbling water, swaying grass, burbling water... But if you give yourself over to Malick’s sensibility and his feel for cultures colliding, this feels less like indulgence and more like an absorbing, sumptuous and ultimately moving luxury.
An acquired taste but for those with the patience, The New World is a true handcrafted original.