. . . . Film Reviews

John Carrichner

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Directed by Terrence Malick

             Amidst the typical rubble of over-hyped big budgeted Oscar hopeful holiday releases this year, the real cinematic event of the season, for me at least, is the release of a new Terrence Malick film. When one considers the twenty year gap between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, the seven years since The Thin Red Line until Malick's latest film, The New World seems like hardly any wait at all.

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         The setting for The New World is the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States of America. Specifically, The New World is about the relationship between the English Captain, John Smith who was at the forefront of the first wave of colonists come to Chesapeake Bay and Pocahontas, the daughter who is generally believed to be the most favored of many daughters, of the chief of a tribe of Natives (or "Naturals" as they are called in the film) named Powhatan. The story of Pocahontas and John Smith is one of the most popular in all of American history. How "romantic" their relationship really was certainly is a matter for debate. Most of what is "accepted" historically comes from the writings of Captain Smith himself who is thought to be someone who would definitely embellish his stories to suit his own needs. The first thing one must accept about The New World is that it is not an historical account of the founding of Jamestown. It is principally a love story, a new variation of a classic popular romance. Small details concerning the founding of Jamestown are provided in glimmers but many of these are historically suspect. Anyone expecting ferocious battle scenes similar to the ones Malick shot depicting the conflict at Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line will perhaps be disappointed. There are battle scenes, impressive ones, but they are fleeting. Some may be let down that Terrence Malick would squander his overwhelming talent on subject matter many would consider more fitting for a Disney movie but those willing to meet The New World halfway will, I think, come to realize that a truly great filmmaker, like Malick, puts his unique stamp on any story and makes it worthwhile. As The Rolling Stones once said "it's the singer, not the song."
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        Terrence Malick's unique style and faultless eye are immediately apparent in The New World. Pocahontas (played by Q'Orianka Kilcher) is first seen from an underwater perspective. Delicate ripples of water flitter before her radiant countenance as she gazes out at something upon the bay, the ships of the approaching colonists perhaps. It should come as no surprise that The New World is exquisitely shot. All three of Malick's previous films are visually resplendent. Days of Heaven is a universally acknowledged high watermark in cinematography. The cinematographer for The New World is Emmanuel Lubezki who has done excellent work on some decidedly mediocre films in the past and now has finally been able to collaborate with a director with a more than appreciative eye for excellence. Aside from the visual beauty of Malick's films, it is of the utmost importance to notice how much of their stories are told in visual terms. The New World is no exception. A great deal of the love that is conveyed between Pocahontas and John Smith (played by Colin Farrell) is illustrated not verbally but visually.
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         Contrary to the accepted cliches of the romance genre, there are no scenes of sexuality in The New World, not even any kissing. There are a great deal of meaningful glances cast and some hugging. Some might find this disappointing but the idea of innocence is a crucial element to The New World. The relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith has more to do with love than sex. Pocahontas is a very young woman presumably experiencing her first feelings of sexuality and these for a man who is entirely different from anyone she's ever known before, someone who couldn't be anymore foreign to her if he'd come from another planet. It is generally believed that the real Pocahontas was only eleven years old when she first met John Smith. Q'Orianka Kilcher is not eleven years old (Thank God!) but it is essential to the story that she seem decidedly ...girlish. To some extent Pocahontas as played by Q'Orianka Kilcher does bear some resemblance to an earlier Malick heroine, Holly Sargis (played by Sissy Spacek) in Badlands. Like Holly, Pocahontas is a girl who has fallen in love with a man who rouses her curiosity as much as her burgeoning libido. John Smith, as played by Colin Farrell, is, to some extent, similar to Kit Carruthers (played by Martin Sheen) in Badlands. Both men are well mannered and kind hearted individuals in their own fashion but also prone to moments of intense violence which they are entirely aware of but unable to control. John Smith tries several times to distance himself from Pocahontas not because he doesn't love her but because he fears the harm being around him might cause her.
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        The most significant negative criticism I have of The New World is that aside from John Smith everyone seems rather two dimensional. The villainous characters don't get much screen time and, for the most part, the main characters are too polite, too nice. This is, after all, supposed to be set against the backdrop of the prelude to what has to be one of the most impolite prolonged actions in world history, the stealing of America from the native inhabitants.
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         After Pocahontas is expelled from her community by her father, for helping John Smith and the other colonists grow food, she is eventually sold to the colonists by another tribe of natives. The colonists intend using her presence as a protective measure. Despite his having disowned her, the colonists know that Powhatan will not attack them if it means endangering his daughter. Shortly after Pocahontas is made part of the white community, John Smith is sent by the English government to further explore the Atlantic coast. He instructs a friend to, in two months time, tell Pocahontas that he has died. Later, believing the man she loves to be dead, Pocahontas agrees to marry another colonist, John Rolfe (played by Christian Bale) a man historically credited with entirely saving the Jamestown settlement by developing a form of tobacco which became Virginia's first cash crop. It is generally believed that John Smith actually had departed on his Atlantic coast voyage some time before Pocahontas was taken hostage by the settlers. It is also generally believed that John Rolfe married Pocahontas not out of love but for pragmatic reasons, as a means of maintaining peace between the settlers and the natives. In The New World John Rolfe is entirely in love with Pocahontas and though she does not feel the passion for Rolfe that she felt for Smith she appreciates the kindness and devotion Rolfe lavishes upon her. Like Lisa Berndl (played by Joan Fontaine) in the classic film Letter From an Unknown Woman (directed by Max Ophuls) Pocahontas has resigned herself to life with a man who adores her when she can't be with the man she herself adores. Like Lisa Berndl, Pocahontas is eventually faced with the problem of what to do when she and her true love are unexpectedly reunited.
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        Like Letter From an Unknown Woman, The New World is primarily about... a woman in love. Did Terrence Malick set out to make a larger scale historical drama and settle for a love story? I can't answer that. There is considerable evidence that a good deal of The New World ended up on the cutting room floor. Fleeting glimpses of A-list character actors like Noah Taylor and Ben Chaplin might indicate there was more to the story that we won't be seeing. Actors like those would presumably not be hired for inconsequential parts. Leaving a good deal of his shot footage on the cutting room floor is nothing new for Malick. Many marquee name actors were cut out of The Thin Red Line and the amount of ultimately unused footage shot for Days of Heaven is legendary. Whatever Terrence Malick's original intentions were, the final cut of The New World is a love story, a good one I think, but perhaps not the film people were expecting. Perhaps more than with any of his other films, Terrence Malick with The New World asks of his audience what many audiences cannot forgive that they... pay attention! If I might be allowed to liken Malick to Beethoven, I would say that The Thin Red Line is like the "Fifth Symphony," passionate and immediately overwhelming. The New World is more like the "Sixth Symphony" less confrontational and more delicate than its predecessor but ...also really good.
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Original Film Review written and published by John Carrichner on December 2, 2005.
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