by Mel Valentin
Written and directed by Terrence Malick ("Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line"), "The New World," the eagerly anticipated period drama set during the pivotal founding of the Jamestown colony by the British in 1607 and the inevitable clash between English settlers and Native Americans, proves to be, if not a major disappointment (thanks to Malick's visual lyricism, obsessive attention to period detail, appealing leads, including newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas and a surprisingly restrained Colin Farrell as John Smith), a disappointing film nonetheless. "The New World" suffers from unfocused storyline, an unnecessary, misplaced reliance on voiceover narration (typical for Malick), and a shaky grasp of who, in fact, is the protagonist in the film (Malick switches two-thirds into the film from Smith to Pocahontas).1607, Virginia. Several sailing ships from England arrive in a harbor as Native Americans (called "naturals" by the disheveled English settlers) look on with curiosity, consternation, and anxiety. John Smith (Colin Farrell), locked in chains below decks for insubordination as the ships arrive is taken to shore, where the leader of the expedition, Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer), gives Smith a reprieve, a new beginning in a new, pristine world. When provisions begin to run low and alternative food supplies fail to surface, Newport decides to return to England, promising to return the following spring, leaving Smith in charge of the primitive fort.
"Another flawed effort from a flawed, if nonetheless brilliant, filmmaker."
After Newport's departure, Smith and a group of men venture inland. Separated from his men, Smith is captured by Native American warriors and taken to their chief, Powhatan (August Schellenberg). Powhatan, fearful that the English settlers will expand and encroach on their territory, orders Smith's death. Powhatan's young daughter, Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher), intervenes, saving Smith's life. Smith teaches Pocahontas English while learning about Native-American culture, even going as far as participating in various rituals. As the days apparently turn into weeks, romance blooms between Pocahontas and Smith.
Smith eventually returns to the fort, where a former rival, Captain Wingfield (David Thewlis) has temporarily taken charge. Unlikely to survive the winter, Pocahontas intervenes, brining fresh meat to the men. As winter slips into spring, clashes break out between the settlers and the Native Americans. Powhatan's fears have come to pass. The settlers won't leave and his daughter has seemingly sided with Smith (he casts her out, sending her to a nearby village where, in time, she's purchased by one of Smith's officers, despite his objections). The besieged fort, however, is ultimately saved by the arrival of Captain Newport, fresh provisions, and additional settlers, including women and children.
The cross-cultural love story between Pocahontas and Smith has, thus far, provided the audience with a dramatic throughline, but Malick, favoring historical accuracy over dramatic resolution to their relationship, switches focus. Exiled offscreen, Smith becomes a ghost who haunt a distraught, despairing Pocahontas. Enter John Rolfe (Christian Bale), another Englishman who becomes besotted with Pocahontas. The remainder of The New World follows Pocahontas, Rolfe, and, eventually, Smith again.
Although the protagonist switch may be considered The New World's principal shortcoming, by that time Malick has made several, substantive missteps, relying on redundant, underwritten interior dialogue to convey the characters' maudlin, shallow thoughts. Malick extends the privilege of voiceover narration only to Smith, Pocahontas and Rolfe (unlike say, The Thin Red Line, an ensemble World War II drama set on the Pacific front, where the audience is privy to the thoughts of multiple characters). For better or worse (arguably worse), a Malick film isn't a Malick film without copious amounts of voiceover narration, beginning with Badlands (an astonishing assured debut that catapulted Malick into the front ranks of American filmmakers), through Days of Heaven (Malick's visually ravishing, if dramatically inert, sophomore effort) and his third film, The Thin Red Line (a loosely structured, ambitious, meditative war drama undermined by Malick’s self-indulgent decision to overwhelm the screen with well-known Hollywood actors in minor or cameo roles).
Malick apparently borrowed lines and voiceover narration from Smith’s journals (real or a reasonable facsimile), especially during the early scenes when Smith meets the Native Americans and remarks on their peaceful ways, their inability to lie, or the absence of words in their language for greed, possessiveness, or other materialistic, Western attributes (Malick comes close to re-invoking clichéd, potentially offensive ideas about “noble savages”). The “naturals,” however, prove Smith’s first, idealized impressions wrong, eventually seeing the settlers as an existential threat and attacking the fort. Nonetheless, Malick lingers longingly on the simple, simpler life enjoyed by the "naturals." The men are fit and strong, as befits warriors (these Native Americans, however, are also farmers, growing corn as their staple food source) and the women young and beautiful, even if they're mostly left offscreen or in the background.Malick, of course, is known for his visual, poetic lyricism. "The New World" is no different, with the camera lingering on images of nature (e.g., trees swaying in the wind, water flowing in a stream, sunsets, and shafts of sunlight slipping through trees or the roofs of Native American homes), or men (and women) in nature, emphasizing the minimal, unobtrusive footprint Native Americans left on the environment, as opposed to the Englishmen, who, moments after arriving in the new world, begin to cut down trees to construct houses and a fort. Malick deleted 16 minutes of footage from the print screened in late December for Oscar consideration. The theatrical version has been edited down to include fewer nature shots. They're unlikely to be missed by viewers, with the exception of Malick's diehard fans concerned about Malick exchanging his artistic integrity for a more profitable run for his film.
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originally posted: 01/20/06 10:45:09