The New World is only director Terrence Malick's fourth feature in 35 years (following Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line), and with his storytelling assured and his productions trouble-free on only Badlands, I suspect that his reputation would be considerably diminished were he more prolific.
The New World, which opens in 1607 Virginia and centers on the courtship of English explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Powhatan princess Pocahontas (14-year-old newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher), deploys many of the same strategies and artistic tics that Malick used on the World War II-set The Thin Red Line: philosophical voiceovers (here they mumble meaningfully bur rarely connect), luminous landscape photography (here courtesy of Y Tu Mama Tambien cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki), minimal narrative drive, and an ostensibly disorienting juxtaposition of human violence and natural beauty. But the result is too static. The New World is ultimately unsatisfying despite so many great moments and compelling elements.
Located somewhere on the vast spectrum between Disney (which animated the Pocahontas story in a 1995 kids movie) and progressive historian Howard Zinn (whose best-selling work foregrounds the degradation and devastation of early America that mainstream histories gloss over), Malick's movie is best in storytelling terms when it contrasts the desolation of the English settlement after the first, brutal winter with the lushness of the native society they're living alongside.
But Malick seems less interested in history than mythology, and The New World is not about the reality of cultural collision in 17th-century America so much as the dreamy, Edenic myth at the heart of the Pocahontas story. There's iconic beauty in opening shots of big wooden ships floating toward the Virginia coast, seen through the trees along a riverbank. There's mystery in the first meeting of English explorers and "naturals," who sniff around each other like dogs meeting in a park for the first time. But The New World really finds its footing when Smith is sent upriver to meet with the Powhatan tribe to explore trade possibilities.
There, Smith is initially sentenced to death by the Powhatan chief but is spared when his favored daughter (Kilcher) throws herself on the visitor and begs her father for mercy. Given his reprieve, Smith lives among the Powhatan, learning their customs and marveling at their culture (in voiceover, Smith calls his hosts "gentle, loving, and faithful, lacking in guile or treachery"). It's like one long Woodstock weekend for Smith, who is in no hurry to return to his English colleagues, especially when he finds himself falling for the princess.
Romping in the tall grass, learning each other's language, chastely snuggling on the outskirts of the village, this courtship comes across like a highbrow Blue Lagoon, but it's still lovely, thanks in large part to a wondrously guileless performance from the coltish Kilcher, with whom Malick conjures fleeting moments of pure beauty, as in a brief glimpse of Pocahontas laying in the grass, a few raindrops adorning her skin.
Once Smith and Pocahontas are separated and The New World becomes a more conventional historical epic, it loses its footing. And when Pocahontas is taken into the settlement, given the name Rebecca, and covered in a corseted dress, the movie staggers to a halt.
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