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The New World (2005)

June 30th, 2006 · 3 Comments

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In the year 1607, three ships – Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery – landed in present day Virginia after setting out from England. The expedition’s captain (Christopher Plummer) establishes the colony of Jamestown, forbidding his men from plundering or raiding, and advocating good relations with the “naturals,” the Powhatan tribe who inhabit the region.

Facing the hangman’s noose for making mutinous comments, Jamestown’s only professional soldier, John Smith (Colin Farrell) is dispatched to the village of the Powhatan chief (August Schellenberg), hoping to establish trade. The chief’s men – led by the great West Studi – advise the chief to kill Smith and drive the strangers away while their numbers are still small.

Smith’s life is again spared, this time by the chief’s prepubescent daughter, played with alien grace and beauty by newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher. As the two civilizations struggle for survival, Smith and the girl history will record as “Pocahontas” sort of fall in love.

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Written and directed by Terrence Malick, the reclusive filmmaker behind two highly regarded films of the ’70s –Badlands and Days of Heaven – and a more recent film, The Thin Red Line, that I’m still trying to figure out. For his fourth project, instead of telling an epic story or exploring a historical romance, punctuated with lush landscapes, The New World is a breathtaking landscape film that every now and then, as if dictated by studio notes, tries telling a story and exploring its characters.

With director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki’s vivid lighting, the focus of the film is not Smith and Pocahontas, but water flowing over rocks, thunderclouds, and the sun bending around stalks of corn. Malick’s eye for unspoiled nature is never in question here. Neither is Q’Orianka Kilcher, one of the better casting discoveries in recent memory and who is perfect for the part of a forest goddess.

Nothing I’ve seen recently demonstrates the difference between “films” and “movies” like The New World. This is a film, and it bored the hell out of me. Working from a script he finished in the late ’70s, Malick has no interest in making a movie, whether about the birth of the American Colonies (the name “Jamestown” is never mentioned), or about the relationship between Pocahontas (her name is never uttered either) and Smith. Either would have provided terrific material for an exciting, thought provoking movie, but Malick’s mission here was to film grass.

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In addition to an absence of story, there are virtually no characters. Along with Wes Studi, if you blink, you’ll miss a gifted supporting cast. Noah Taylor, Ben Chaplin, John Savage and Brian O’Byrne play colonists, but you’ll never know that unless you check the end credits. Jonathan Pryce is credited as King James, but all I can remember seeing of him was a sleeve.

Farrell, who has been a good actor in the past, suffers from some of the same baggage Tom Cruise and Lindsay Lohan are carrying around, and is really the last guy I wanted to see cavorting with a pre-teen earth goddess. Christian Bale pops up an hour and a half into the film, playing the colonist Pocahontas chooses to marry, but Bruce Wayne himself can’t make the film watchable.

The only reason to sit through this abstract study of environment is Malick’s ability to transport us to places before time began. He did it with Guadacanal in The Thin Red Line and does it with North America here. Sound designer Craig Berkey and supervising sound editor Skip Lievsay capture the natural symphony of a new continent beautifully, but if a nature film is not what you’re in the mood for, I’d skip this.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 chelcy Nelson // Oct 21, 2009 at 8:26 am

    i really liked it and its really helped me get what i needed and i would like to have my mom buy this movie. =) where can i find this movie =) thank you and i really like how you put real people in it!i! =)

  • 2 Cassandra // Feb 11, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    I loved this movies and I don’t what your talking about. It was such an epic movie to me.

  • 3 Sky // Jul 1, 2011 at 4:36 am

    I loved the movie; a quasi-ethereal and refreshing look at the classic tale with the silent and “abstract” moments leaving one with wonder and thoughts on a backdrop of surreal new world beauty. You’d have to be simple-minded or utterly dependent on movie gags if you can’t appreciate this “film”.

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