BY KHALILAH WALTERS
The New World is an epic period piece written and directed by Terrence Malick, whose last directorial effort was The Thin Red Line. The film stars Colin Farrell as Captain John Smith and Q’Orianka Kilcher in her debut role as Pocahontas. Filmed only about seven miles from where the original Jamestown settlement was founded, The New World chronicles the arrival of British colonists in Virginia in 1607, and the relationship that develops between Smith and Pocahontas against the backdrop of clashes between the settlers and the “Naturals” they encounter in the New World.
The New World is a visually sumptuous feast. Few films manage to accomplish as successful a deployment of imagery to elegiac and haunting effect. Malick paces the cinematography in a lavish manner that compels the viewer to drink in the gorgeous scenery. At times, this is one of the film’s successes; it dares meditations on man and nature that might have been insufferably trite if given vocal expression.
Sometimes, however, it is too much of a good thing. All the visual narration coupled with sparse dialogue recalls nature documentaries on National Geography complete with epitaphs to earth-friendly noble savages. These are, of course, contrasted with pillaging, barbaric colonists with their corseting of nature and themselves. Malick is not sparing in his use of symbolism, though it is not always clear what he intends to symbolize. At the end of the film, I was none the wiser about what Malick intended to convey with the ray of light leitmotiv. Madonna fan?
Malick takes great pains to portray the love story in trenchantly honest and complex fashion. But this isn’t your typical boy meets girl and they live happily ever after story. For much of the film, Malick straddles the line between affective and affected filmmaking, and seems unafraid landing squarely in the latter camp. Malick peddles his romantic vision in The New World with a solemnity that dares an audience to snicker. The problem is that Malick makes it all too easy to call his bluff. For all The New World’s artistic vision, it does not take a cinematic philistine habituated to thoughtless, artless garbage to chafe at a film as utterly self-absorbed as is The New World. You don’t have to be the Grinch who stole Valentine’s Day to cringe at the “poetry” of the film: the dubbing of The New World with characters’ internal ruminations that ring embarrassingly saccharine will have you wondering if the script was written by a poet manqué at a Valentine’s Day slam competition.
Yet the film has a certain something that might render it worth experiencing. Certainly, the film takes its own sweet time, and at two and a half hours, some editing could only have helped. But there are a few flashes of brilliance. I particularly enjoyed the apoplectic lunacy of the man attending to John Smith’s whipping. I also appreciated the sparse dialogue of the film, especially where meditations on man and nature are concerned. Though it was against my better judgment that I had decided to endure a Colin Farrell film, he is not horrible here, even where his attempt at gravitas is comprised merely of mute glaring. Q’Orianka Kilcher is successful in a difficult and iconic role, as she is called on to render a performance that could easily have degenerated into pretension. She manages to carry the part beautifully, portraying Pocahontas’s transformation as she gradually loses semblances of her old self in her new environs after she and Smith are separated by his ambitions. What eventually becomes of their romance as she marries another Englishman, John Rolphe (Christian Bale) hints at the ambiguity behind the title “The New World.” It is this complexity that renders Malick’s epic, frustrating as it may be, a tour de force that deserves the billing for which it seems so conscientiously to strive: no mere movie, a work of art.