New Line // 2005 // 172 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // October 14th, 2008
Once discovered, it was changed forever
Director Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) has directed a mere four films in during his three decade career, content only to film exactly the subjects he wants in exactly the way that he wants them filmed. Six years after his WWII epic on natural beauty and the alienation of war, he returns with a similarly-themed depiction of the founding of the Jamestown colony and Captain John Smith's fateful romance with Pocahontas. While this subject has been hashed over far too often for my taste, The New World is as brilliant as anything the director has ever done.
As their ships finally close in on land after an arduous trip across the Atlantic, a group of British colonists descend on shores where they intend to make a new life for themselves, but they're not alone. The Algonquin tribe, who have lived there forever, now see their land stolen from them by these armored invaders. In an attempt to learn from them and keep their aggression at bay, the tribal chief assigns his daughter Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) to get to know the colony leader, John Smith (Colin Farrell, Tigerland). They learn from each other and slowly fall in love, but this love threatens to destroy both the tribe and the colony alike.
A nature lover's dream, The New World is full of beautiful, expertly filmed scenes of the natural beauty of these untouched landscapes. The opening sequences are a celebration of the land and there are few better equipped for this than Terrence Malick. Like The Thin Red Line, this film is as much about how man interacts with nature as it is about the direct story at hand. It is a very slow build; the native swim in the ocean and frolic in the meadows, unencumbered by the traits we see when this is contrasted with the colonists. For them, nature is something to be conquered, whether this is in the name of the king or in the name of survival, they do not feel the connection to the land. This disconnect nearly kills them, as generations of city dwelling and stalwart command hierarchies have rendered even the simplest tasks of finding food difficult. Covered in armor, they cannot adapt to the constantly changing wild environment.
The natives can not only adapt to their surroundings, they thrive in them, cherishing every little thing that life brings them. They are a peace with the Earth and at peace with themselves, so their natural reaction to the struggling British settlers is to help them. Unfortunately, the native have never experienced the bald-faced deceit of Imperialism. Every step they take to help is seen as an opportunity to exploit their generosity.
This, however, is about the relationship of the go-betweens of the two societies. Captain Smith, for his roguery, has been cast from the colony on the promise that he can return with information or supplies. Seized almost immediately by the natives, his metal plating affords in none of the mobility necessary to defend himself, and is easily subdued by the more aptly-clad natives. Instead of killing him, which would have probably been the smart move for their well-being, the chief decides that his daughter should learn from him and Pocahontas, beautiful and intelligent, soaks in the knowledge like a sponge. They exchange information before changing affections and, as a result, they find real happiness but their openness toward the other gets them in trouble, for she has given Smith an item of sacred value that ensures the British will not leave, effectively destroying their society for their love.
This kind of plotline in this historical context has been told far to many times over the years, but the setting certainly works for the themes that Malick puts forth. He shows here as much as anything he's made man's separation from nature. In both the story and the cinematography, he gets his point across very well without ever hammering viewers over the head with it. The nature shots, filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men), are amazingly beautiful and the music from James Horner (Iris) does well to accentuate what are, otherwise, completely silent scenes. The slow-burning film builds to an equally quiet, but very effective conclusion, where he's able to juxtapose the stunning nature of the new world with the urban order and decay of England.
Technically and artistically, The New World is a success, but the performances bring the film down a little from the heights of his previous work. Q'orianka Kilcher is beautiful, angelic bathed in the sun, but was very young when the film was made and does best when she's silent. Her graceful motion says what needs to be said but, after she learns English and miraculously gains a proper British accent, her stock plummets. Colin Farrell can be good and, at times here, he does very well. Mostly, though, his performance is flat and the emotions he seems to feel are forced. Christian Bale (Rescue Dawn) comes in toward the end and is wasted in his role. Either of the performances from the male leads could have been done by anyone, and this is the only disappointment in an otherwise great film.
This extended cut of The New World gives us nearly 40 additional minutes of footage. There are no dramatic additions or chances; no more fleshed-out subplots. Mostly, we just get more of everything: more nature photography, more voiceover, more everything. Detractors will say that this makes the film even more ponderous than in it already was (which they would argue is substantial), but these extensions are not made for people who would rather see Brit on Native violence. Terrence Malick does what he wants to do, and there are many, myself included, who love the transcendent poetry of his work and the simple beauty of the world. For these people, The New World (Extended Cut) is a must see. The film was the first in over a decade to be shot on 65mm stock and the Anamorphic transfer is fantastic. The film simply glows; sunlight and shadows are equally clear and the muted, earthy tones are beautifully rendered. The transfer is of reference quality. The surround sound is equally good, with clear music and dialogue, even when the waves crash in the surround channels. While the film is quiet in general, it is awash with ambient sound which fully immerses viewers in the experience. Outside of a digital copy of the film, there are unfortunately no extras. I wish it came with the documentary from the original release, and maybe it will be included in a future Blu-Ray release, but the beauty of The New World, on its own merits, is more than enough to recommend the film.
Though The New World may be at the bottom of Terrence Malick's short list of films, that's still a far cry above the best of most filmmakers. Those looking for wild action or a slew of extras will be disappointed, but this is a fine release of one of the better historical dramas in recent memory.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 172 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated