Published Feb 01, 2006Given that The New World is only the fifth film that artful director Terrence Malick has released since 1969 (among them Badlands and The Thin Red Line), each one should be treasured as potentially his last. At the same time, the very rarity of the event builds expectations possibly beyond what a single film could fulfil. No worries on that front when it comes to The New World Malick has once again created a stunningly beautiful piece of work with startling imagery, lyrical storytelling and a complex, layered examination of the interaction between two cultures.
The New World is yet another telling of the arrival of English settlers to North American shores, where they encounter, impact, battle and fundamentally transform the culture of the aboriginal people they discover. As the petulant English settler John Smith, Irishman Colin Farrell does a good job balancing his flight from English strictures (many Puritan travellers had reason to seek a new life) with his naïve fascination with the "naturals" he encounters, particularly stunningly beautiful and radiant newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher playing the Pocahontas role. When her tribe takes Smith in as the Pilgrims face a brutal first winter, it is she who serves as ambassador, translator and guide; as the most cherished of the chief's many daughters, the slow ebb of her loyalties to Smith is taken as the greatest betrayal.
The challenge for Malick in retelling this tale is not just its familiarity thematically, but the ways in which "how it really happened" have been imprinted on the culture; add to that the whiff of political correctness that surely blows through the production offices of Hollywood executives eager to portray First Nations communities in a respectful light. The result could be the most ham-handed simultaneous vilification of the English and misguided beatification of Native culture. But with a deft hand, Malick (who also wrote) both bends to and dismantles those impulses. His portrayal of John Smith's enchantment with his new surroundings is appropriately soft-focus, dreamy and spectacular as it should be yet his portrayal of the Natives' subsequent brutality pulls no punches. Similarly, the English are not simply marauding, mindless brutes; their suffering through a brutal first winter is palpably harsh.
What Malick has managed to accomplish is really quite remarkable, finding new flesh on a thematic carcass seemingly picked completely clean, plumbing new complexities and nuances in an old tale often told. Mostly it's the result of his singular eye and uncompromising vision, one that we will hopefully see a few more times in his all-too-sporadic filmmaking career. (Alliance Atlantis)