Movie Review: The New World (2005)
“Once discovered, it was changed forever”
The New World (2005)
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer
Synopsis: The story of the English exploration of Virginia, and of the changing world and loves of Pocahontas.
Those familiar with the work of maverick director Terrence Malick will know, going into his 2005 opus The New World, that they are not in for some rousing Hollywood adventure movie. Malick’s a man who takes his time to tell cerebral tales requiring the level of intellectual engagement which normally spells death for movies at the box office. And so it was for The New World, a beautiful but painfully slow telling of the romance between Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell – Winter’s Tale, Solace) and Algonquian Indian Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), which only recouped its $30 million production costs after its DVD release.
The plot sees Smith amongst the first settlers to land on the shores of Virginia in 1607. Despite their fearsome appearance, the native Algonquian Indians are friendly at first, mistakenly believing – or hoping – that their visitors are merely passing through. As time goes on, though, the relationship deteriorates. Food grows scarce for the settlers, and Smith, who is under a cloud for mutinous rumblings during the long voyage from England, is given the dangerous mission of establishing a trading relationship with the natives up-river. Taken prisoner by them, Smith is only saved from having his head caved in by the intervention of Pocahontas, the Chief’s favourite daughter, with whom he becomes romantically involved.
Malick’s use of the screen is like the artist’s use of his canvas. Every shot is meticulously chosen for its visual beauty, even if the object of the camera’s gaze is undeserving. Although Malick effectively synchronises the music of Wagner and Mozart with the emotional impact of his visuals, he also sacrifices sound and music to create atmosphere, such as during Smith’s journey upriver amidst a stunning landscape, during which the camera lingers on the scenic views as if searching for the movement of unseen observers. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, with the characters’ thoughts provided by a voice over which is by turns enlightening and pretentious. While Smith makes the kind of straightforward proclamations one might expect of a faintly roguish seaman, the object of his love sounds like a Calvin Klein ad. Rapturous declarations like “Oh, to be given to you. You to me. I will be faithful to you. True. Two no more. One. One. I am… I am,” are surely more likely to generate scornful giggles than achieve the desired effect. It is during this portion of The New World, in which the English seaman and the Indian princess define and explore their fascination for one another (one of many possible interpretations of the film’s title), that the pace slows to a crawl, and it’s a strange truth that the film is more interesting when the two lovers are apart than when they’re together.
As John Smith, Colin Farrell, with his soulful brown eyes and brooding looks, appears to be in a state of perpetual bemusement, as if unable to understand just how an established actor like himself can be outshone in every scene by a 14-year-old with barely any screen experience. He must have been grateful, then, that he shares no scenes with Christian Bale (American Psycho, Out of the Furnace), an actor of depth and constancy, who makes a late appearance as a man who woos Pocahontas while she and Smith are parted. Kilcher, meanwhile, possessing the poise and elegance of one much older, engages with the audience as much as Malick’s artistic pretensions will permit.
Those in search of a plot-driven story will be disappointed by The New World. Those who wish to revel in the sumptuous cinematography, and to reflect upon its measured contemplation of the inevitable conflicts provoked by the meeting of two worlds – both internal and external – that are completely alien to one another, will find it a rare delight.
(Reviewed 22nd April 2016)