Movie Review: The New World
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Arts Critic
Capt. John Smith - the real one, not the one with Colin Farrell's eyebrows - devoted much of his writing life chronicling his early-17th-century dealings with what he and other English colonists called "the salvages," meaning savages, meaning the Native Americans living in and around what would later be known as Jamestown, Va.
In one account, Smith recalled witnessing the effect of "dreaming visions" and "phantasies" as experienced by a "proper, civill salvage" stricken by an image of dead children's bodies being exhumed - the past literally coming back to haunt the present.
Nothing so dramatic occurs in "The New World," writer-director Terrence Malick's lovely, mirage-like version of what happened between Smith and the favored daughter of the tribal chieftain Powhatan. Yet this is what Malick set out to make: a dreaming vision, running 2 hours and 15 minutes - 15 minutes shorter and better than the version screened last month - and a plaintive examination of history grounded in meticulous textural detail, although perilously skinny in terms of narrative.
The film, Malick's fourth in 33 years, cannot help but stir a contradictory response. A lot of people will be driven crazy by Malick's picture, as they probably were by his previous one, the Guadalcanal drama "The Thin Red Line" (1998). Others will happily float down Malick's river of imagery. Others still will be seduced, then exasperated, then seduced again. I don't really get the people who see it either as a poetic masterwork or as a dreamy, trippy indulgence. It's both.
The first third of "The New World," in which onscreen characters converse in dialogue only when they must - the murmured voiceover, as always, is Malick's preferred mode - represents his peak achievement in filmmaking as vision quest. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, shooting mostly in natural light, snake alongside the "naturals" as they dart through the woods, taking in the sight of three strange ships offshore with dread and wonder. In previous films Malick deployed music by Carl Orff and Camille Saint-Saens to contextualize his fables. Here, as Christopher Plummer (Capt. Newport, a role obviously shredded to ribbons in the editing room) gazes upon the forests, and the naturals regard their visitors, the scene takes on mythic resonance thanks to the prelude from Wagner's "Das Rheingold."
The movie sustains its brilliantly hypnotic rhythm for 45 minutes or so, and even for those restless with much of what follows, the good stuff will likely be good enough. Farrell plays Smith, and in this version of the story his roughhouse reputation as an ex-pirate and fierce soldier is fictionalized so that he arrives in 1607 Virginia in chains, due to be hanged for insubordination. "Fortune, ever my friend," as he says in voiceover, sees him through.
Sent by Newport to broach an alliance with the naturals, Smith is enraptured by the sight, sound and kinetic beauty of Pocahontas, played by then-14-year-old Q'Orianka Kilcher. (Malick's camera stays this side of actionable ogling, and the film is properly dodgy about the precise relations between Smith and Pocahontas.) Malick, who may be the least cynical filmmaker alive, treats their love story as a chaste and nearly superhuman meeting of spirits.
In the newly established James Fort, re-created by Malick's veteran art director, Jack Fisk, in all its grubby non-glory, the colonists have a tough time of it. They're saved during a particularly harsh winter by food and aid from the natives. At the point Pocahontas is more or less kidnapped and brought to the settlement, in order for her own people to not wage war on the English, "The New World" starts moving into a lesser state of cinematic wandering. The lack of a narrative motor starts to wear, and Malick early on exceeds the number of rhetorical questions that should be allowed in any one screenplay. "What voice is this that speaks within me?" Smith asks. Elsewhere: "Love. Shall we deny it when it visits us?" After a while you think, what is this, "The Virginia Monologues"?
So you concentrate on what works. Malick doesn't ask great dramatic things of Kilcher, yet she is such a noble and easy camera presence, used just so, you cannot imagine a better embodiment of this hopelessly iconic role. Kilcher trades glances with Farrell very prettily and later matches up, touchingly, with Christian Bale's John Rolfe, who takes the newly Christianized princess as a wife, and who takes over the murmuring voiceover chores once Smith departs for further shores. Bale and Kilcher feel right together, and they're both savvy in the ways of what might be called Malick-acting, which means behaving naturally inside a rigorously controlled visual frame, usually with windswept reeds in the foreground. Malick is a holy fool for wind. Wes Studi, who plays Opechancanough (another role truncated in the editing), put it well in an interview with the online movie site ropeofsilicon.com: "He shoots some really great grass."
By the time the third chapter of the story begins, you realize "The New World" will not be exploring the psyche of Pocahontas beyond marveling at her soulful goodwill. "I will find joy in all I see," she says as she's being corseted by her English handmaiden for the first time. The cultural irony in this is barely noted. Yet Malick, a decorous maverick if ever there was one, finds his own brand of wit and wry majesty in the cross-cultural voyages made in "The New World." Visiting the King James court in London, Rolfe and Pocahontas, renamed Rebecca, are accompanied by members of her tribe. As they skulk about the absurdly well-manicured English gardens, the sight is droll enough to compensate for many of the puttering stretches en route.
Beginning with "Badlands" in 1973, a film that strikes me as hollow and arch except for Sissy Spacek's performance, each Malick film has delved into the old-fashioned notion of going native. In "Badlands" the murderous woodland sprites find a kind of outlaw Utopia in South Dakota, at least until the cops arrive. In "Days of Heaven" (1978), Malick's most satisfying feature, the urban refugees meet both their bliss and their Waterloo amid the wheat fields, as photographed by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler. In "The Thin Red Line," a movie with the craziest highs and lows of Malick's career, the writer-director practically went AWOL with the island natives right along with his characters.
Malick's nature documentarian impulse has never been more flagrant than in "The New World," yet it has never made more organic sense. The film, which is superb on every technical and design level, has both greatness and fuzzy-headedness in it. The DVD version, according to producer Sarah Green, will run three hours. The differences between the earlier 150-minute version and the current 135-minute version, says Green, relate to trims throughout plus some reinstated footage featuring Plummer and Farrell, designed to lay out the exposition - what little there is - more clearly.
Malick is no melodramatist, which is a strength. Sometimes he forgets even to be a dramatist. Yet there's something in the best of this picture that even "Days of Heaven" lacked: A sense of spontaneous visual discovery, which is different from pristinely stylized vistas and formal, Andrew Wyeth-inspired compositions. "The New World" may court and even dip into self-parody. But that's how it is with true filmmakers: They have a personality and a way of looking at the world, however naively, and that is not nothing. It is, in fact, something, and in Malick's case, something occasionally marvelous.
"The New World"
Written and directed by Terrence Malick; cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Richard Chew, Hank Corwin, Saar Klein and Mark Yoshikawa; music by James Horner; production design by Jack Fisk; produced by Sarah Green. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday, Jan. 20. Running time: 2:15. MPAA rating: PG-13 (some intense battle sequences).
Capt. John Smith - Colin Farrell
Pocahontas - Q'Orianka Kilcher
Capt. Christopher Newport - Christopher Plummer
John Rolfe - Christian Bale
Powhatan - August Schellenberg
Opechancanough - Wes Studi