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The New World - Review

Colin Farrell in The New World

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: The Making Of The New World; Teaser Trailer; Theatrical Trailer; Easter Egg.

TERRENCE Malick’s The New World may be a beautiful film to look at but it is prone to ugly, artistic excess and requires a great deal of patience from the viewer that isn’t always rewarded.

The film explores the myth of Pocahontas yet, tellingly, does not once mention the iconic historical figure by name. It is a love story that also serves as a historical look at the clash of two cultures, loss of identity and the desperation of man.

Yet in true Malick style it is reflective, slow-building and occasionally ponderous, taking an unnecessary amount of time to present its themes and running out of it in the process. It is also over-reliant on voice-over monologues that frequently come at the expense of character interaction.

The film begins as Native American Indians first notice three ships entering the James River in 1607 and unfolds in suitably beguiling fashion, intercutting scenes of the Indians’ playfulness with those of Colin Farrell’s English adventurer, Captain John Smith, in chains – a sign of the suffering and loss of freedom that is to follow.

Needless to say, once the visitors land an uneasy alliance automatically exists between themselves and their ‘hosts’. Smith is asked to lead an expedition upriver to meet the Indian chief in the hope of establishing some trade, while his superior, Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) heads home for much-needed supplies.

The expedition is short-lived. Smith’s troops are killed and he is taken captive and spared from a horrific fate by the intervention of the chief’s (August Schellenberg) favourite daughter, Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), who becomes intrigued by what the man may have to offer.

At the request of her father, Pocahontas, or Rebecca as she is christened, spends time with Smith in the hope of learning his intentions, and the two fall in love. The scenes which follow play out like some sort of idyllic dream, as Smith comes to understand and appreciate the new world he has entered. Think Last Samurai or Dances With Wolves with the artistic flourishes of The Thin Red Line.

It is only a matter of time, however, before Smith has to return to the fort from which he came, re-entering a crude and desperate world in which hungry men are forced to eat each other and are prone to mutiny and betrayal. Their fragile community is further tested by the ever-present threat of the Indians, who have been ordered to attack by the chief once it becomes clear that the settlers have no intention of departing.

Having been warned of the attack by Rebecca, however, the English resist the Indians and their chief abandons his daughter to another tribe, who subsequently uses her as a trading option for the future. When Smith learns and resists this, he loses control of the fort and is sentenced to die, only to be saved by the return of Newport and new assignments that take him away from the new world.

Pocahontas, meanwhile, is taken in by the fort and, some years later, meets and marries newly arrived aristocrat, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), with whom she has a child. She believes Smith to be dead. Yet once news reaches her that he is very much alive, she yearns to be reunited and eventually meets up with him again when Rolfe takes her to England to become a guest of the Queen. The trip proves a fateful one, however, and although Pocahontas gets to exorcise some of her own demons, she eventually falls ill.

There are times when Malick’s film is historically accurate, and others when it takes liberties with the story (partly because so little is documented, especially from the Native American side). It is this decision which proves the film’s Achilles’ heel. There are some records that suggest Pocahontas viewed Smith as a father-figure rather than a lover, which makes the relationship in the film an uneasy one, especially since newcomer Kilcher was only 14 at the time of filming.

Hence, the love story between her and Farrell, though sensitively portrayed, fails to hold any real resonance, particularly when real-life reputations intrude. Farrell, too, looks awkward during these moments and Malick’s refusal to allow his actors to ‘act’ with each other makes it difficult to really make the characters engaging. The monologues, too, are mumbled and test the patience.

The director’s decision to refrain from using the name Pocahontas is also a strange one and those unfamiliar with the historical significance of the character may find themselves wondering why she is deemed to be so important – especially when the Queen requests an audience with her. For her part, Kilcher portrays the youthful naivety and innocence of her character very well, but is less convincing when dealing with more mature emotions.

The arrival of Bale’s character, Rolfe, is left until very late in the movie and his relationship with Pocahontas subsequently feels rushed.

That’s not to say that The New World isn’t without merit. It’s always beautiful to look at and is respectful to the Native American culture, offering some fascinating insights into their rituals and the important place that the environment plays in their civilization. Needless to say, these play to the strengths of both Malick, the director, and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki.

It also succeeds in presenting a genuinely authentic feel for the time and the desperation and fear that must have existed between both sides as they discovered each other for the first time. The battle scenes, though brief, can be bone-crunching and serve to expose the brutality of hand-held combat.

In many ways, The New World feels like a natural successor to many of the themes Malick explored in The Thin Red Line. But it is nowhere near as satisfying or enriching. It asks too much of its audience without fully rewarding them and is let down by an odd choice of cast which, like many Malick films, also contains too many diverting cameos from big name actors who only appear fleetingly.

The result is a deeply flawed but fascinating experience that has plenty to say if you have the patience to listen.