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The New World Review

By Shawn McKenzie 01/22/2006

Director Terrence Malick has been making movies for over 30 years.  The weird thing is that The New World is only his fourth movie in those 30 years.  Is there a reason why his work process is as slow as his movies?

In 1607, Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) set sail from London with three ships: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery.  They landed in what was to be known as the Jamestown settlement, named after England’s King James I (Jonathan Pryce), in the state that would eventually be called Virginia.  The Virginia Company, consisting of 103 men, included 27-year-old Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), who was about to be executed for insubordination.  Realizing they need all of the men, Newport pardons him and has him lead an expedition to meet with King Powatan (August Schellenberg)…the leader of the “Naturals,” a Powatan Algonquian tribe of Native-Americans…in Powhatan’s village of Werowocomoco.  Newport then sails back to England for more supplies and manpower.  Both the colonists and Powatans live in an uneasy peace with one another…though the colonists consider the Naturals “savages” and the Powatans just hope that the white men will eventually leave.  While on the expedition, Powatan’s warriors kill Smith’s party and Smith himself is brought back to the Werowocomoco village for execution.  Powatan’s teenage daughter Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), who had been admiring Smith from afar, convinces her father to spare his life.  Powatan decides to have Smith stay in the village and teach Pocahontas the white man’s language, so he can find out when they are going to leave.  Smith starts to teach Pocahontas his language, and they soon fall in love.  When he returns to the Jamestown settlement with much-needed provisions, he finds it in shambles.  Powatan soon finds out that the white men do not intend to leave, and he prepares for attack.  Pocahontas warns Smith about the attack, and the settlers are ready for Powatan’s warriors.  Powatan casts out his favorite daughter because of the betrayal, and the English adopt her.  She is dressed in Puritan clothing, taught how to read and write, and rechristened “Rebecca.”  Smith decides that his love for Pocahontas will bring further harm to her, so he decides to accept the assignment of finding a passage to the Indies.  He leaves instructions to tell Pocahontas that he has been found dead at sea in two months.  She is heartbroken, but she finds solace in the love of John Rolfe (Christian Bale), an English tobacco farmer.  They get married, and eventually have a son named Thomas (an uncredited Catherine Lydia Tidwell.)  One day, she overhears two ladies talking about Smith and how he is still alive.  She can’t decide if she wants to find Smith again, or stay with Rolfe, who takes her and Thomas back to England with him.

Why does Malick insist on making long, boring movies?  He didn’t start out that way.  His first film, 1973’s Badlands, starred a young Martin Sheen and a young Sissy Spacek, and the movie was decent.  His second film, 1978’s Days of Heaven, wasn’t long, but it was boring, and it starred Richard Gere, one of my least favorite actors.  His third movie, 1998’s The Thin Red Line, was almost three hours long, and for a movie about a war, it didn’t have much action in it (if you do ever see it, you need to immediately rent a good war movie from that year…Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan…to make the comparison.)  Line was unfortunately nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, giving Malick false hope (the movie lost in all seven categories it was nominated for.)  So…now we come to his fourth movie.  I must make note that the version that I saw (and the version that arrived in theaters) was two hours and fourteen minutes long.  Believe it or not, the version screened for critics a month ago for award consideration was even longer (it was two and a half hours long.)  It wouldn’t matter how long it was if it caught our attention.  I heard several people around me at the screening say to their friends, “Is it over yet?”

The problem of the movie wasn’t the cast.  I like Farrell (I like him better as a bad guy though) and Bale (though I will never forget his role in 2000’s American Psycho.)  Kilcher was okay as a relative newcomer, but she was only 14 at the time Malick filmed this movie.  Fortunately, the “love scenes” between Smith and Pocahontas (whose name isn’t mentioned once in the movie…just her adopted name “Rebecca”) consist of some loving glances.  The appearance of the son Thomas took me by surprise (I wasn’t sure if he was their son at first.  Thomas appears not long after she and Rolfe get married, and then he disappears…only to show up again at the end of the movie.)

No…the problem was Malick’s direction (of his own script.)  He had all of his actors speak so silently that they appeared to be whispering.  It was only when a cannon went off that I heard any noise.  Even the battle scenes were quiet…as if someone turned down the volume on the movie.  The final insult was during the end credits.  James Horner’s score was replaced by chirping crickets…further showing how boring he must have intended it to be (well…it worked.)

The New World may only be Malick’s fourth film, but if he is going to keep doing movies like this, I’m in no hurry to see film #5.  This movie is longer and duller than the recent period piece Tristan & Isolde.  Go out and rent Disney’s animated version of the story, 1995’s Pocahontas, instead.


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