In 1687, John Smith (Colin Farrell) was part of a small fleet of ships that set sail from England to find mysterious new worlds on the other side of the Atlantic. They landed in Virginia, immediately meeting up with “The Naturals,” a Powhatan tribe of Native-Americans who apprehensively greeted the strangers, waiting for them to turn around and leave. Among the tribe is Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), a teenage girl who takes an immediate liking to Smith, eventually saving him from execution. Amidst the turmoil of the two cultures bent on war, Smith and Pocahontas form an intimate bond, which is tested when Smith is forced to choose between sides, and Pocahontas is slowly Europeanized.
“The New World” is the latest from Terrence Malick, the legendary director who likes nothing more than to hibernate between his productions. “World” is Malick’s fourth film in just over 30 years, the last being 1998’s “The Thin Red Line.” Throughout his career, Malick has fed his obsession with nature, and how man mindlessly intrudes over it. “New World” is the first film I’ve seen of his that really finds a way to express this concern, and utilizes the contrast between Mother Nature’s pristine harmony and humanity’s thoughtlessness to the fullest effect.
“World” opens much like Malick’s other pictures, establishing quickly the director’s trademark visual tone poems to the locations used. With rippling streams of water, birds chirping away, insects going about their daily business, and the sun breaking in the brand new day, Malick and superb cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“Sleepy Hollow”) capture the untouched beauty of Virginia, and the union the Powhatans have with the land. Shot crisply and cautiously, “World” is a visual banquet, with Malick soaking up every single detail of the forests and shores of the land, deliberately elongating the pace of the movie so the audience can get drunk on the location. This effect pays off the English arrival well, for these are men who stomp loudly and disrupt the symbiosis of the land quickly and without guilt, making their disruptive presence feel like a knife in the heart of Eden.
I would never argue with anyone who felt Malick can be too ambiguous a storyteller for his own good, but the tale told here is a perfect fit for the director’s vision. Finding a genuinely effective romantic story to hang his favorite ornamentations on, “World” connects together wonderfully, avoiding pretension as much as humanly possible due to the great efforts of Farrell and Kilcher. As the young Pocahontas (though that name is never used), Kilcher is a real find. She’s faced with an extraordinarily difficult role, and surrounded by acting pros (Christopher Plummer also stars), but Kilcher is able to discover Pocahontas’s innocence and tragedy as her life is slowly taken out of her hands. Born with a memorable face, and blessed with a director who knows how to film it perfectly, Kilcher is pitch-perfect as the iconic Native-American, and the character’s slowly dwindling life essence is one of the most heartbreaking character arcs I’ve seen this year.
Filmed repeatedly, most notably in an exceptionally well-done 1995 Disney animated feature, the love story of John Smith and Pocahontas is only the start for Malick. He delivers the heart-tugging goods well, through visually interesting acting improvisations, and long takes of desire and flirtation. However, the final act takes Pocahontas through the rest of her life, including a stint with John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the man who married her. This part of her story is often cut out, since it effectively kills the romance, and doesn’t present a crisp happy ending. Yet, I’m thrilled Malick took Pocahontas all the way to the end, providing a true pictorial of the girl we know from myth to the woman she became.
Given ethereal life by James Horner’s vital score (which also utilizes Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”), “New World” might take its sweet time to get where it’s going, but the point of the film and Malick in general is the journey, not the destination, and the path chosen by the filmmaker here is astounding in its detail and tragic exquisiteness.Rating: A-