Saturday, June 4, 2011

Review: The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)

Terrence Malick's The New World is a historical adventure epic depicting the founding of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia and inspired by the figures of Captain John Smith and Pocahantas. As one of the most picturesque films I have ever witnessed, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was awarded an Academy Award in 2005 for his stellar work. Every single shot is stunning. Particularly in his earlier films, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line (also two of the most beautifully captured films you will ever see), Terrence Malick has made it evident that he has an interest in situating his characters amidst the natural environment. Often they are at odds, but often they interact in peace. There is usually some sort of cataclysmic event that results in the destruction of the land, however.

In The New World, the beautiful and fragile landscape, kept preserved by the Natives, is rich in beauty and tranquility. When the British arrive with schemes of starting a new colony, conflicts ensue due to their lack of respect for the land, their failure to understand the Natives and their inability to function as a collective settlement. The blossoming forbidden romance between Pocahantas and Smith is caught in the middle of the turmoil.

The film opens in the year 1607, with the arrival of three ships to the coast of Virginia. These ships are part of the Jamestown Expedition sent by English Royal Charter to found a colony in the New World (North America). Aboard one of the ships we are introduced to a man, later identified as Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), below deck, in chains. While initially sentenced to death by hanging for scheming mutiny, once ashore, Smith is pardoned by Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) and assigned to lead an expedition up river to seek trade with allies. While the prospects of settlement were initially bright; poor discipline, shortage of supplies, disease and tensions with the local Native Americans (the 'Naturals') placed the future of the expedition in jeopardy. Newport returns to England for fresh troops and supplies. Smith, losing his companions, is captured by the Native Americans and taken before their Chief. His life is spared when the Chief's daughter Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) intervenes his decided execution.

When the events leave the British settlement, there is very little dialogue present throughout The New World, with Malick utilising a technique that incorporates a montage of related images together. Each shot is just a part of a process of edited shots that combine to propel the story. Take the scenes where Smith is living as a prisoner amongst the Natives as an example. We see, purely through the swiftly edited images, and use of Smith's voiceover, the way that he has adapted to their daily life ("a life free of possession and greed"), his respect for their civilisation and his increasing closeness to Pocahontas. It is a kaleidoscope of beautiful shots of varying length. Sometimes the camera lingers on the pair, while others it will cut to a shot very much the same but from a slightly different angle, or situated in further or closer proximity. There are subtle variations, which creates the effect that you are watching fragments of a long period of time.

Sometimes the sequence of shots appear to have very little relation to one another (a shot of the shoreline, one of a forest canopy, and then one of Pocahontas hand printing paint onto Smith), but as building a picture of this world as a whole, it all comes together beautifully. It exists like a collection of thoughts or reminisces (or dreams) cut together. They may even be the thoughts that Smith escapes to later when he is struggling to lead the colony at Jamestown. The New World chooses to rely on its striking images and natural sound effects (birds, insects, running water) rather than dialogue. The authenticity of the film is also an incredible feat. Shooting the film on location at the Chickahominy River, Malick based the recreation of the Powhatan village and the Jamestown settlement on archaeological evidence. The Native's costumes and the actors' dialect (an extinct Powhatan language taught to the actors) also add to the authenticity of the film. As is usually the case in a Malick film, The New World features poetic whispered narration, which address the existential crises his characters. Smith comes to love and respect the Native's way of life and questions the validity of his earlier one.

The Chief has Smith returned to Jamestown with the understanding that the English are to return home the following spring when their aid ships have returned. Smith discovers the settlement in turmoil, and after the tyrannic and selfish leader, Wingfield (David Thewlis) is overthrown, Smith is assigned as his replacement. His peaceful existence with the Natives he had grown to love is replaced by starvation, frustration, death and the new difficulties he faces with his responsibility. Their numbers dwindle throughout a harsh winter. When news reaches the Chief that the settlers had no intentions of leaving at the turn of spring, the Natives start an assault on Jamestown, with Smith forced to lead a repulse attack.

I have found that there are few filmmakers who shoot battle sequences better than Terrence Malick. In The Thin Red Line there is a sequence similar to the assault here, which is even more amazing. We are never swayed to favour one side - the battle is captured neutrally. The emotion of the battle is visible through the observations of Smith, who has a professional and personal allegiance to both sides, and is forced to defend himself in the skirmish by killing Natives. The camera tracks through the centre of the assault with figures running in an out of shot, and a series of individual skirmishes captured within the one movement. The montage technique (which reminded me of Sergei Eisenstein's early silent cinema) is used once again to connect a number of sporadic and intense individual moments to the larger scale battle.

Set amidst the tumultuous early period of American history the story of Pocahontas is quite a remarkable one. The film's title refers to the 'new world' that the British settlers intended to colonise but also Pocahontas' journey to England with her husband, John Rolfe (Christian Bale). The arrival of Captain Newport following the siege brings news of an offer from the King for Smith to lead his own expedition to find a passage to the East Indies. Torn between his love for Pocahontas and promise of his career, he decides to return to England. Pocahontas, on Smith's instructions, is informed that he was killed on the expedition. Remaining in Jamestown, Pocahontas is comforted by a new settler (Rolfe). He helps her to adapt to the English way of life; she receives an education, marries Rolfe and and bears him a son. She eventually learns that Smith is still alive, and while she is overwhelmed by the wonders of England (including an audience with the King and Queen) and all that Rolfe can offer her, she struggles to shake her feelings for Smith.

While Colin Farrell and Christian Bale are the biggest names to appear amongst the cast and account for most of the voice-over narration. Q'orianka Kilcher is the heart and soul of the film. Her involvement in the dawn of American history, and later her civilisation into an Englishwoman, wife and mother accounts for the entirety of the plot. Each of the performances are excellent, and while I wasn't compelled by the romance (the endless strolling through the dense grass), I thought Colin Farrell's facial expressions were just as effective as words. Christian Bale's more subdued and reserved roles most effectively convey his abilities as an actor. But The New World is the work of true auteur in Terrence Malick. As usual the production was plagued with delays, with Malick editing several versions of the film. Film fans familiar with Malick's work will regard this as one of the decade's great achievements, while those unacquainted with Malick's style will likely find the film ponderous and boring. But there is no doubt that this is film driven by a moving story and from a cinematic point-of-view features some of the most breathtaking images imaginable.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars (A-)


  1. Fantastic Review.

    BTW, which cut of the film did you review, the 135-theatrical cut, the 150-minute European cut, or the 172-minute extended cut?

    Or all of them?

  2. Thanks man! I own the 135 minute cut.

  3. I've heard some good things about this. Sadly, I've only seen one of Malick film - "The Thin Red Line" - which is good, still a bit overrated.

    As you know I'm desperately looking forward to "Tree of Life" - can't wait to see it when it comes to my area in a couple of weeks.

    It's no surprise that this film is beautiful - Malick from what I've seen has an artistic gift.

    Great review as always Andy.

    Now I just need to see you over at my site commenting ;D

    ~ Sam

  4. Brent.

    I agree as Malick has a clarity and cleaniness to his work that very few directors can achieve. I think David Lean and John Ford are the only two like Malik who captured natural scenery so well.
    I liked The Thin Red Line even though it is complete bollocks against the book. Visually stunning and just so clean.