A review of “The New World” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for adult situations and some violence

Run Time: 2 hours

 

 

          Terrence Malick creates yet another ambitious fever dream of a film that speaks volumes of style but lacks narrative substance.

          The discovery of the New World was a time of glorious novelty and change. In spite of its disparate documentation Malick has chosen his story’s path and stuck to it with a vengeance.

Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) and his band of not-so-merry men arrive from England to the shores of America and find a peculiar and exotic new land. A land abundant with fertile grasses and lush fruits, not to mention tribes of strange but gentle natives who have worked the territory for hundreds of years.

Imprisoned upon arrival but set free to lead the men to explore their goldmine of a find is insubordinate John Smith (Colin Farrell), a charismatic hot-head with a penchant for the new and different. Resentment flows fast and furious as the men see Smith as a traitor and bristle at his leadership.

Their mission is to learn the ways of the people and generate peace and harmony between their European and Native American cultures. To that end Smith falls for the 15-year old princess Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) hook, line and sinker. As the Jamestown settlement becomes a reality and the dueling cultures take baby steps towards amity Smith and Pocahontas blaze the fires of their own desires.

Like any tragic romance this one goes wretchedly south. Smith struggles with his responsibility to the men who aren’t adjusting well to the winter, his preoccupied guidance or their strange surroundings, finally abandoning his feelings for Pocahontas in favor of his conscience.

In the hands of Malick the ethereal tangents of romance are immensely poetic; immersed in fiery yet undeclared passion and yearning glances worth endless number of words. Kilcher’s visage is noble and proud and expresses her besieged emotions effortlessly.

Ever the professional, Farrell sheds his Irish bad-boy in favor of a soldier of fortune urgently torn between two lovers; careworn and carefree but ne’er the twain meeting.

The film shifts gears when Pocahontas meets aristocratic settler John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who professes love and proposes marriage. For her part Pocahontas has never recovered from her first love and, believing Smith dead, agrees to the union, traveling with Rolfe to London for an audience with the Queen. A surreal, fish-out-of-water variation that feels oddly surreal but curiously engaging.

My feelings for Malick haven’t changed; I consistently admire his work – in particular his visual imagination – but typically find his lengthy narratives slow and sluggishly quixotic. Nothing out of the ordinary happens but it looks great while it’s happening. To be fair, the restless, uneasy version that I saw has been trimmed of fifteen minutes of excess plot fat for its theatrical release.

Ultimately “World” is saved by its intrepid character portrayals and an evocative sense of “what if?” that pervades one of history’s most enduring and storied love affairs.