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Movie Review: The New World

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Terrence Malick is a wonderful director whose work is sumptuous and engrossing. With Badlands and Days of Heaven, both of which I haven’t seen in a preposterously long time, Malick’s lingering tones and rich, meticulous shots are fully on display. In his career, which has spanned decades, the gifted American director has only made four feature length films and one short.

Malick’s use of his contemplative and pensive directorial style makes his films captivating and involving in the most inimitable of ways, as he unfolds his stories by involving the viewer in the panorama, the characters, and the time period without the suspension of belief. Malick’s films have an opulence to them that is rarely duplicated by any working director today. I look forward with immense eagerness to his next film, Tree of Life.

2005’s The New World is surely no exception to Malick’s trademarks. Encased in the most beautiful naturalistic surroundings, this tale of discovery is one of the best films from 2005. Malick also wrote this story of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, and the settlement that is placed there by the English. The New World also highlights the story of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, treating their love story with tenderness and a sense of adventure. The New World features production design by Jack Fisk and costumes by Jacqueline West. The set design and the scope of the production are incredible to experience and still seem remarkable after several viewings of the film.

The New World is a film about the strangeness and complexities of the arrival of the English settlers to Virginia, first and foremost. Using Pocahontas as its central character, the film explores these notions with depth and detail as her character becomes accustomed to a new society and becomes slowly and reluctantly assimilated into it. Pocahontas is played by the wonderfully talented Q'orianka Kilcher. Kilcher was fourteen at the time of shooting and some of her scenes caused a great deal of controversy, leading to some editing by Malick of a few scenes between her and Colin Farrell. Kilcher’s Pocahontas is never addressed by name throughout the film.

The New World strips away all of the fantasy and lore about the arrival of the settlers, choosing instead to see the events through the eyes of Kilcher’s character as her world suddenly has some very new, very strange visitors. The settlers begin to construct a fort with immediacy as Captain John Smith (Farrell) heads out to explore on his own. He meets Pocahontas and a bond is instantly formed after she saves him from certain death. The English, especially Smith, are as awed as the natives with the sumptuousness and the strangeness of this new predicament. We explore communications, customs, and ways of life through the eyes of the natives and the English, with neither side being portrayed as villainous or wrong. With Malick’s lens, we all are simply observers of the foundation and exploration of newness, strangeness, and the romantic notion of discovery.

The film works so well because it imagines how these two separate groups would communicate and how they would interact. As the English become paranoid and a bit fearful, nonsensical events begin to occur that threaten the once peaceful bond between the natives and the settlers. The contrast between the ways of life of the natives and the English is also explored, as the natives live and flourish because they are involved with the land and nature, whereas the English nearly die because of their arrogance and their unwillingness to learn and understand. There is a meekness here that is imposed by the grandeur of nature, leading to a keen exploration that invokes the senses through Malick’s expert direction. We explore these lands as the characters explore these lands.

As Pocahontas grows up, her life changes and her internal reckonings also change. Smith’s roguish existence gives way to the stability and kindness of settler John Rolfe (Christian Bale). The stories being told here are rather well known and I will allow the viewer his or her own discovery of the details, except to say that the contrast between Pocahontas’ eventual journey to the lively allure of London and her homeland is  magnificently explored. The performances aren’t so much about the art of performances, but rather natural extensions of people existing and being in these places. Malick’s films tend to have occupants rather than actors, and The New World is no different.

There are, of course, two new worlds in this film. One is what the English discover as they approach Virginia for the first time. The other is what Pocahontas discovers in the realm of love and emotion. Malick explores these moments tenderly and with such incredible tact that certain wordless scenes, of which there are many, are simply explosive in their tenacity. Kilcher is an extraordinary performer and her ability to play this part is incredible. When we see her, we recognize her without being told who she is. Kilcher embodies who Pocahontas would have been and who she should have been, helping tell the story properly and with romantic realism, efficiently burying the dull weight of Disney-esque folklore with an affectionate rendering.

The New World is a fantastic film that could be discussed for several hundred more words. The best way to experience a Malick film isn’t by talking about it, however, but rather by seeing it and letting it into your senses. Scenes in The New World impose their will upon the viewer with their engrossing nature, often coming across like an unsullied breeze from the water or through the trees. The New World looks so real and so lavish that the film almost has an aroma of freshness and distinctive romance. It is an important film, a precious film, and a tenderly crafted one.

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About Jordan Richardson