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New World, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Terrence Malick's Brave, Bold and Beautiful New World"
5 stars

Filmmaker Terrence Malick is not interested in directing conventional films that tell their stories in a straightforward and dramatic manner. Instead, he is more interested in creating cinematic tone poems that allow him to fully explore the things that do concern him–mostly capturing the quiet and bucolic beauty of nature and the tragedy of man’s inability to harmoniously co-exist with each other within those surroundings. Those willing to take the leap into his experiments in pure cinema–free of the constraining requirements that betray the essentially stagebound nature of most narrative film–have hailed his infrequent previous works–“Badlands” (1973), “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “The Thin Red Line” (1998)–as unquestioned masterpieces. Those unwilling to do so have derided him as a pretentious hack who is unable to tell even the simplest story and who ladles on the visual overkill in a failed effort to cover up that fact–most of the reviews written by the latter spend less time dealing with whatever film is being discussed and more time proudly crowing how they were never taken in by the hype.

This disconnect has always been there but with the release of his latest work, “The New World,” the gulf between the two groups seems to have grown wider than ever. The haters have been out in force decrying the film as the most heartless and pretentious thing ever made by human hands and have pointed to Malick’s last-minute decision to trim several minutes of footage (even after it had already been screened for the press) as proof that even he has no clear idea of what he wants to say anymore. Although I suppose that such a reaction isn’t exactly a surprise, I am a little shocked by the virulence of it–they seem almost personally offended by Malick’s desire to make a film by his own rules instead of simply giving us an ordinary epic. What is exceptionally strange is that they are lambasting this film for being a cold exercise in pretentious style since it is by far the most emotionally powerful work that Malick has given us to date–possibly the finest work of his career and definitely the first one that touches the heart as significantly as it does the mind and the eye.

The basic story of “The New World” revolves around the young Indian princess Pocahontas (newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher) and how the lives of herself and her people are irrevocably changed forever with the arrival of English settlers (on the shores of what would eventually become Virginia) in 1607–specifically John Smith (Colin Farrell), the explorer who is captured by the Indians and whose life is saved only when the young girl begs her father (Wes Studi) to spare him. As the relationship between the two grows–based less on sexual desire than in a genuine interest in learning about each other’s culture–they suggest the possibility that the two wildly different groups can indeed live in peace together. However, it is not to be--the Indians correctly surmise that the newcomers aren’t going to be leaving anytime soon unless they are forced to while the settlers see taking the land as their God-given right–and the two groups are soon locked in brutal battle. The war has enormous personal consequences as well; Smith is forced to choose between his fellow Englishmen or the Indians while Pocahontas is disowned and cast away by her father for giving aid to the settlers–eventually, she is traded to them

Years pass, more settlers arrive at the Jamestown colony and Pocahontas winds up being assimilated into their culture–her buckskin-and-barefoot form is forced into constricting dresses and shoes and she is baptized under the name of Rebecca. At the same time, Smith is recalled to lead an expedition to the Indies and, unable to face Pocahontas because of his love for her and guilt over what has become of her, he leaves word that she is to be told a couple of months after his departure that he has died. After a while, she meets and eventually marries John Rolfe (Christian Bale), a widower who works with her in the settlement’s tobacco fields. Eventually, word of Pocahontas reaches England and she is summoned overseas for an audience with the Queen–a trip that exposes the girl to a world as new and alien to her as hers was to the settlers before they remade it in their image.

However, what makes “The New World,” and, by extension, all of Malick’s work, so unique is not the story itself but the manner in which he has chosen to tell it. Instead of simply giving us another retelling of a story that has been dealt with (at least parts of it) in textbooks, Disney cartoons and Peggy Lee songs, Malick chooses to approach it by forcing viewers to see the events as though they themselves were participants. Utilizing stunning cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick creates a haunting atmosphere that is so convincing that you may well find yourself forgetting that you are sitting in a multiplex screening room. Therefore, what seems to be Malick’s obsession with extended and lingering footage of foliage blowing in the wind makes sense in context–he is forcing us to really study and regard it in much the same way that the settlers must have when they first encountered it nearly 400 years ago. Once the scene shifts to England in the final sequences, he uses the same approach to show us period London through Pocahontas’s bewildered eyes as well and we begin to understand how odd some of those aspects (especially a royal visit as surreal in its own way as when Smith was brought before the natives) must have seemed to her.

And as with his other movies, Malick has chosen to convey most of the actual story points through arch and formally spoken narration–often spoken by several different characters at different points–instead of through conventional dialogue. This has also served as a bone of contention to many who feel that excessive narration is a bandage slapped on at the last minute if the director has failed to convey the story through conventional methods. While this is often the case, there are times in which the device can be used as a legitimate narrative device and this film is one of those cases. Here, it avoids the needs for the kind of awkwardly expository conversations between people that rarely exist in real life while still conveying their inner thoughts and desires. Regarding the tone, I wasn’t particularly bothered by it simply because it subtly illustrates that while people can be as profound and poetic as they want to in the confines of their own minds, they tend to come across much less so when forced to actually speak for all to hear. As for the complaint of using different narrators at different times, I don’t see the problem because while Malick’s interest chiefly lies with Pocahontas, he is democratic enough to give the others their say as well and the result isn’t nearly as confusing or jumbled as the detractors make it sound. This is Malick’s style, one that he has cultivated for over 30 years and to gripe about it now seems as foolish as going to a Ramones concert back in the day and complaining that they didn’t play any slow songs.

Where “The New World” transcends Malick’s previous work is that it contains, in the character of Pocahontas (who is never referred to by that name once during the film), an emotional center that his other films, for all their accomplishments, simply haven’t had. In his past films, he has observed his characters from a distance but his approach to Pocahontas is a surprisingly direct one. A lot of that comes from the extraordinary work in the role by newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher in the role. A newcomer who was only 15 at the time of the filming, Kilcher doesn’t so much act the role as she simply becomes the part–to watch her physically transform from the free and wild Pocahontas skipping through the fields to the Rebecca trying to get the hang of her cumbersome clothing is simply astonishing. I have no idea how much of this comes from genuine acting talent and how much comes from Malick luckily finding the perfect personality to embody the role (in much the way that Roland Joffe did when he hired newcomer Haing S. Ngor for “The Killing Fields”) but the end result is a stunning performance that utterly overwhelms the work from her more seasoned co-stars Farrell and Bale–both are good in their roles but good only goes so far when you are up against the real thing.

Whether you will like or loathe “The New World” will depend solely on what you are expecting from a historical film. If you want one that is interested in presenting the material in a conventionally stylish manner and does most of the heavy lifting and thinking for you by offering up easy-to-grasp talking points, you should probably give it a wide berth and stick with the likes of “Munich” instead. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a film that doesn’t supply those answers and instead forces you to personally engage with the material instead of just dispassionately observing the proceeding from your chair, “The New World” will move you with a wholly unexpected power.

Note: Since writing this review, I have seen the newer and shorter (by about 17 minutes) version of the film that Malick has prepared for its wide commercial release. As far as I can tell, no actual scenes have been removed–instead, he has shortened several scenes from within (especially during the opening and the section in which Rolfe begins to court Pocahontas) in order to pick up the pace a bit. In addition, he seems to have added a few bits back into the mix–Christopher Plummer’s role is expanded as his character now explicitly explains what the settlers are doing in Jamestown, there appears to be a little more of the Smith-Pocahontas relationship and Kilcher’s performance now truly dominates the proceedings. (To add to the confusion further, there are now rumors that Malick is preparing a third, even longer version of the film for DVD.)

For those lucky enough to see the long version, this new one is a mixed blessing at best. While it remains a brilliant and staggering work at any length, I must confess to preferring the original version to this recut–the sense of actually entering a new and unfamiliar world was one of the things I loved most about the film when I first saw it and that sensation, for the most part, seems to have wound up on the cutting-room floor along with the shots of grass blowing in the wind. However, while the cuts have hurt some of what made the film so special in the first place, they don’t change things in a radical enough fashion so that Malick haters are going to suddenly change their minds. If I had seen this version first, I probably wouldn’t have had any problem with it at all. However, once you’ve seen God, how can you possibly go back to the golden calf and still be satisfied?

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13670&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/19/06 23:53:12
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User Comments

5/17/11 Ravenmad Beautiful w/out so many words. It makes you feel. 5 stars
6/27/09 Bedridden Languidly beautiful 4 stars
2/14/09 Chloe The most beautiful movie I've ever seen 5 stars
11/27/08 Shaun Wallner Great Film! 5 stars
9/13/07 Matt A great story which needs a remarke because this version is a painful YAWN. 1 stars
11/03/06 MP Bartley Sombre, but lush and absorbing. 4 stars
10/26/06 Tiffany Losco Boring, I thought this would be great, but it was horrible 1 stars
9/16/06 Pocahontas was 11 years old Crap, not true, dehumanizing towards Native people.... 1 stars
8/21/06 William Goss Man, what a first half. God, what a second half. 3 stars
7/03/06 Ry too long, not enough to keep you entertained. 3 stars
5/30/06 daveyt worth a look for the cinematography, thin red line without the action. A little ponderous 4 stars
5/22/06 Chunkylover53 Opening frame is introduced, exotic plant& was highpoint of dungheap BTW Indians all on X! 1 stars
5/21/06 jpp sublime 5 stars
5/15/06 Brett If you don't like it, Stealth is probably for you. 5 stars
5/11/06 fred c dobbs fine drama along with great photography 4 stars
5/11/06 Danny Goode not that great 2 stars
5/06/06 k r absolute crap 1 stars
4/24/06 Furuta My god!!!! the worst film ever!!! 1 stars
3/05/06 The Grinch Running through meadows, more running through meadows. COMA or poetic movie?You decide. 3 stars
3/02/06 Pocahontas looks constipated. I kept hoping she'd lift that loincloth and belt out a huge hearty heallthy dump! 4 stars
2/13/06 John It is too long, tedious, indulgent but it stays with you for a long time 4 stars
2/05/06 Agent Sands Do NOT go expecting an action flick. It's a Bergman-esque character study. 4 stars
2/04/06 Melina Beautiful, visual love poem 5 stars
1/28/06 Dan It's a shame that this wasn 5 stars
1/28/06 josh thank you erik childress for stating what ive been thinking 1 stars
1/25/06 the laughing man Visually Breathtaking 4 stars
1/23/06 Pickles Christ UMM...and just where was the giant spider attacK? the fireball explosions? ... ?? 3 stars
1/23/06 newpeep a self-conscious affair 2 stars
1/23/06 herkos akhaion Looks great, but story is slow and clunky 3 stars
1/22/06 Elizabeth Langurous and poetic. 4 stars
1/22/06 jcjs beautiul, uplifting, true, vast, profound, new, kind, different, splendid, languid, fine 5 stars
1/21/06 Jim The Movie Freak Best Film of 2005. A poetic, heartrending work of art. 5 stars
1/06/06 rory amazing film! 5 stars
12/31/05 Travis Anthem I saw a free screening and I want a refund for my time! 1 stars
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  25-Dec-2005 (PG-13)
  DVD: 09-May-2006

  27-Jan-2006 (12A)


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