Colin Farrell and Q'orianka Kilcher in The New World

The New World

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

20 May

 

Christopher Columbus dies, 1506

Start typing “Christopher” into Wikipedia and , after getting to “Christo…” it will auto-suggest Christopher Columbus. This man who died over 500 years ago, on this day in 1506, still has an immense hold over the imagination, though he wasn’t the first person to discover the New World, nor even the first European, as is commonly held, nor did he even accept that he had found it, preferring instead to believe that he had arrived in the East Indies (which is why he called the natives Indians). And he was an Italian, sailing under the auspices of the Spanish monarchy, his crackpot idea to sail west to the spice islands of the East Indies having been rejected by the Portuguese and the English. Columbus’s first voyage across the Atlantic, in search of the easterly approach to Japan, which he believed was about 3,700 km distant from the Canaries (it is around 12,500 miles) took him to the Bahamas in 1492, where he first made unwitting landfall in the New World. He made four voyages in total, between 1492 and 1503, to what we now call the West Indies, Central and South America. Having become a brutal Viceroy and Governor of the Indies after his first voyage, Columbus was removed from power in 1500, though his voyages of exploration continued. In 1503 be became stranded on Jamaica for an entire year, finally returning to Spain in November 1504. For the last two years of his life he lived in Valladolid, writing about his voyages and petitioning the Spanish monarchy for the money he believed was due to him, as per their prior arrangement. He died of a suspected Reiter’s Syndrome, a disease causing joint inflammation possibly provoked by food poisoning picked up on one of his expeditions.

 

 

 

The New World (2005, dir: Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick’s second film in four years, after the gigantic 20 year hiatus between 1978’s Days of Thunder and 1998, confirmed what had just been a suspicion when The Thin Red Line came out. That he’d lost it. At least it did if you were never quite signed up to the Malick project, which is a poetic rather than prosaic way of making movies. Telling the story of Captain Smith (Colin Farrell) and the first settlers of the New World, it first presents us with a litany of woe, as the newcomers catch diseases, start quarrelling, fighting, mutinying. Malick contrasts this with the life of the natives – who are beautiful, peaceful, wise, cultured, artistic, kindly, dressed in beautifully cut clothing finely decorated. And then Captain Smith (Colin Farrell) falls for one of the natives, a beautiful young woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) who looks like something out of a Calvin Klein perfume advertisement. Together these two then conduct one of the most languid courtships in cinematic history, which is largely wordless except for a voiceover by a mumbling Farrell, which Malick intersperses with shots of an impassive Captain Smith, then the sky, then a corn plant, birds flocking, water, trees, Pocahontas (for it is she, though she is never named), Captain Smith, water etc etc.
If you want the full Malick thing, in other words, this is it. The images are astonishing, it has to be said, but the message flirts with banality – the savages are noble, the newcomers are bad and nature is mighty. Malick also introduces his variation on the foundation myth of America, a country built on youth, as Christopher Plummer’s Captain Newport makes clear in his sinew-stiffening speech about a new generation for a new country. Malick even makes guarded claims that these early explorations and settlements are the beginning of the modern era of globalisation. And then he whisks Pocahontas and John Rolfe (Christian Bale) off to England – Smith having dropped out of the picture for reasons I’ll let the film elucidate – where there is more visual astonishment, in what are the best scenes of the film, Pocahontas being received as a queen in a foreign land and being dressed as such.
This is a strange film of sledgehammer subtlety, but what it does have is a naive honesty – Malick makes us see things as they might have been seen by people experiencing them for the first time, almost as an alien from outer space might (see The Thin Red Line for a war film through alien eyes). This is very unsettling. Instead of being absorbed by the story – the love between Smith and Pocahontas, for instance – Malick throws the focus onto the details of the things in front of our faces in a forceful way. So – her clothes look nice, those must be chamois leggings, oh, is that corn, they’ve got dogs in that stockade, I wonder if it smells of shit in there, oh look grass waving and so on. Depending on your point of view this is all very distracting, takes us out of the film we’re trying to immerse ourselves in, or it is the film itself.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The debut of 14-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher
  • More fine work by DP Emmanuel Lubezki
  • The great cast includes Wes Studi, Christopher Plummer and David Thewlis
  • Malick’s unique view of the early colonisation of America

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The New World – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “The New World”

  1. Let me start off by saying that I was introduced to the films of Terrence Malick in 1998 when I watched and was blown away by ‘The Thin Red Line.’ It is one of the best war movies ever made and while I can rant about it at length, that review belongs on a different page. It was with great anticipation that I waited for ‘The New World.’ I was lucky enough to get tickets to an advance screening and the theatre was full of people like me. Their take on the film was almost as interesting as the film was.

    ‘The New World’ is a film that will draw out one of two very powerful emotions: Love or Hate. I really don’t believe there is a middle ground in this case. I think it is quite possibly the most beautifully photographed film I have ever seen. It is astonishing. The score from James Horner is, in my opinion, his greatest work. He’s a wonderful composer but he has exceeded himself on every level. This is a movie that can be watched like art (because it is) and listened to as a symphony (it might as well be one). Very few movies leave me stunned and ‘The New World’ is so luscious that I think it is worth the journey, even if it is only to look at how beautiful it is and listen to how glorious it is. Is that a superficial way of looking at things? Perhaps, but they are the film’s two most brilliant qualities.

    ‘The New World’ does have problems and I think it falls very much into a ‘buyer beware’ category. Malick’s movie is long — very long — and feels every moment of it. I don’t mind these things because I found it enchanting; many in the audience with me did not. These are not people who are ‘dumb,’ or who ‘don’t get it.’ They are people who are used to 99% of the films that you will see. ‘The New World’ is very self-indulgent at times. No one can reasonably defend the pace of the film. I want to and I can’t. This is a movie so full of substance that it is detrimental. It is so rich and textured that it would be hard to say where things could have been improved, but aside from the first forty minutes which deal largely with the question of whether or not the Europeans can survive the first winter or not, the dramatic ‘action,’ that is, the engine of a script that pushes one scene into the next, is idling at best. ‘The New World’ has a plodding pace and it took me on a nice quiet stroll that I enjoyed immensely. I can not, in good conscience though recommend to the man on the street that he go to see it. If less than a third of the theatre I was in walked out, I’d be stunned. I lost count because so many people left. Mostly the middle hour and a half of the film is to blame. Scenes drift from one to the next — they’re stunning and textured and personally I enjoyed them — but they involved a lot of hanging out. Two people hanging out in the woods. I understand that the film has deep meditative and philosophical meanderings about man’s relationship with nature and how one impacts the other. I get it. But a lot of the love story is about two people hanging out in the woods. All the time. If one of them had said ‘Let us go watch the grass grow for the afternoon,’ it would have been the most honest line in the entire film. It is the only thing I will fault Malick for here because it really does kill the film for a lot of people. His intelligence should not be questioned. I wish only he’d tried to focus the script a bit more and been specific rather than general. Can two people from different cultures be together? We get it already. We got it an hour ago. Oh, more grass growing … must watch … ha! Forgive my little joke.

    The argument to be made though is that this film has not been made for everyone (the studio is no doubt surprised to learn this and will be scrambling to recover their money — they did a good thing in making it but they’re going to lose their shirts). It was made by Terrence Malick for Terrence Malick. I’m glad to have seen it but I spoke with twenty people who were not. There will be constant arguments on the user boards here at the IMDb. The film is going to have rabidly fanatical supporters who think everyone else is just too stupid to get it. And it is going to be criticized by many, many others who died a thousand deaths just trying to sift through the movie.

    Two final thoughts: the first is that I hate myself for having to say anything negative about Malick or his film. He’s a special film-maker and his films make it worth going to the theatre. ‘The New World’ is great but flawed and it is dishonest for anyone to pretend otherwise — such behaviour is deceitful and pretentious.Thought number two is that although the film is equal parts challenging and rewarding (as great movies should be) it is especially important in the case of ‘The New World’ to see it in the theatre. It is so majestic in scope that I don’t believe the greatest home theatre can do it justice. It is truly epic in its cinematography and score. If it doesn’t win Oscars for both we will have witnessed a massive artistic injustice. NOTHING this year, NOTHING has come close to being a threat to ‘The New World’ for either of those two categories. Appreciate them as they were intended to be seen.

  2. This film was everything I had hoped for and infinite volumes more. Writer/Director Terrence Malik simply refuses to see film-making as anything short of an art form and handles his brushes (not to mention every frame) with the tender care and command of an artistic master.

    The warnings are true… if you’re looking for standard Hollywood fare, then run away. However, if you were trying hard to remember what film-making is supposed to be about, then this film is an absolute MUST SEE. While it is not forcefully spiritual in its aural narrative, I found this film to be a deeply religious experience in ways that words fail to express.

    True to form, Malik affords the world of this film as much character as the humans themselves possess. Long stretches of nothing but ambient, nat sounds. Stunning snapshots of the peripheral influences to each scene (i.e. blowing grass, running streams, towering trees). Even an ending title sequence that lives beyond the narrative… breathing the last breaths of a tale that has managed to regularly transcends words.

    Sharp. Detailed. Purposeful. Bold. Brilliant.

    I have not been this happy about a film in a very long time. Well worth the money. Well worth the time. You will leave better for having seen it.

    I could not recommend it more!

  3. First, let me applaud this film. I have been waiting for Terrence Malick’s fourth film ever since I saw The Thin Red Line. Arguably, Malick is one of the most adept and deliberate filmmakers right now. The New World is nearly flawless, and the beauty of Malick’s direction adds to the argument that film can still be considered aesthetic. Much has been lost in the last 30 years, but Terrence Malick sticks to what he knows. What some people may complain about this movie are the long silences, the action-less movement, and the poetic voice over. This is what Malick does. He is a modern transcendentalist. What he does with film is comparable to what Emerson did in writing. The color is naturalistic, and the sounds are earthly. It helps that Malick uses natural light for his shots, giving the scenery more life and texture. As for the substance of the film, what isn’t pantomimed in subtle gestures and movements is brought to life with flowing poetic voice over. This goes all the way back to Badlands for Malick. But here, we get varying minds contributing. There are some moments in this film when the viewer has to understand the characters by their facial expressions instead of their words. I think that will be hard for a lot of people who are expecting a more vocative and kinetic film. As for the acting, I was very impressed with all involved, particularly Q’Orianka Kilcher. This young woman played the part of innocence beautifully. I also have to give some credit to Colin Farrell, considering I never expect much out of him. Unlike some of his other movies, he was not in it to steal the spotlight. Everyone played their parts without any excessive over-acting. This movie is a historical drama, but I feel like the history aspect is merely a backdrop for the Terrence Malick play. In his production, the flowing waters and the forest canopy are the actors, and the gentle reflections of troubled minds are the words. Truly, this is an incredible film. I have waited a long time for Terrence Malick to wow me again, and he has done exactly that. If you want a movie that tears at your heart strings, then go see something recycled like Brokeback Mountain. If you want a transcendental experience, one that challenges you to go deeper than the surface of the film, then The New World is waiting.

  4. The New World

    reviewed by Sam Osborn rating: 3.5 out of 4

    Filing out of The New World, completely speechless and without notes, I could fathom only single adjectives to describe the experience. Looking at these listed words on my memo-pad now, they read "Thunderous, True, Beautiful, Solemn, Forceful, Gripping, Honest, and Slow." And for those who watch The New World with a calm countenance, an open mind and a ready cache of patience, Terrence Malick’s long-awaited picture will have a similar effect. The film is a masterpiece thirty years in the making.

    His goal is plain enough: to affectively and honestly portray the love Pocahontas experienced in those first years that Europeans cut their first, fresh swath from the New World. But Malick goes far beyond a simplistic love story. I was at the screening for Casanova a few days earlier, where the film’s objective was essentially the same: to portray the love between Casanova and Francesca in the days of Inquisition Venice. But where Casanova approaches love at a bubbly, comedic perspective, The New World throws itself into a headlong narration of love’s sorrow. Every frame of The New World reflects this painful, aching emotion, utilizing the sounds and images of environment to incredible, innovative effect. The first shot of the film–an extended shot several minutes in length–finds the camera staring into a river. It’s clear and pristine, carefree and surrounded by the blissful sounds of an unperturbed forest. Soon ripples begin forming, and we notice the quiet droplets of rain pit-pattering around us, causing the water to flow a little, bringing about a contented onslaught of lily pedals. The scene continues on, drawing us farther and farther into Malick’s deafening reality with only the sounds and images of nature. He creates a calm within us with these images, a kind of serene canvas for him to later paint the vivid brush-strokes of human love later in the film. In this entire first act, little is even said. But these scenes rarely grow tiring. He finds rich beauty with every situation. His forest is lush and his settlements picturesquely Dickensian. Malick shows great and rare confidence with this picture. Few filmmakers would have the cool audacity to create a film so primarily reliant on nothing being said.

    The first and most important of Pocahontas’ (Q’Orianka Kilcher) romances is with the infamous John Smith (Colin Farrell). He’s brought to the New World bound in a cage, punished for earlier mutiny. But because he’s the only soldier of the expedition, Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) opts to let him free on a strict probation. Their first encounters with the Naturals, as they’re called, go coolly enough, with curious interest from the Naturals and tense hesitation from the settlers. And even here Malick plays with flights of romantic whimsy. These scenes of first encounter are shot in windswept, overgrown grassy fields, with Pocahontas dancing and twirling about them with her brother, catching the spry interest of Smith.

    Soon the settlers hear of a great city of Naturals down the river, and Smith is sent to investigate. Things have been going badly for the settlers and Captain Newport has left back for London and a new store of food and supplies. Smith’s expedition is cut short, however, when he runs into a narrow, maze-like complex of swamps and is ambushed by warrior Naturals. He’s taken prisoner by the Naturals, but granted life because of Pocahontas’ curious interest and her favoritism with Chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg). This catalyzes our entrance into The New World’s most prominent territory. The scenes of Smith’s time with the Naturals are Malick’s best. They’re those first strokes of paint on his canvas and the seeds of that palpable, historical romance.

    But admittedly, even with The New World’s supreme sense of confidence and slow-moving progression, it sometimes wanders into the realm of self-indulgence. It especially grows tiresome in the final act, when we’re brought from Virginia to London, our beloved Smith left behind to be replaced by John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and his stonewall courting of Pocahontas. I’d even venture to say that Malick could have left 30 minutes of these segments on the editing room floor, re-attaching them later to the Extended Cut DVD release that’s sure to come. But movie-going patience is the mantra of the Awards season, and so some bottom-dragging in films is what’s to be expected.

    What was not to be expected, however, was Q’Orianka Kilcher, the debuting actress playing Pocahontas. Few words she says, but dialogue is not always what makes a forceful performance. Her body language and expressions are allowed to do the speaking for her. She’s advantaged also by her strong, muscular features that often betray hints of divine femininity. Farrell also does well, particularly in his somber narration. He reads it as though he speaks the words to himself, whispering them almost, for only his imagination to hear. But his physicality is manipulated nicely as well, exuding bubbly chemistry for Kilcher. The two mix ideally. Their sorrow and love and deeply resonated emotions are echoed about with their strong performances and Malick’s supreme direction. And although Christian Bale strides into picture in the latter parts of the film, our hearts lie with Smith and Pocahontas, and we find ourselves resentful of Rolfe’s advances. But this is just Malick’s narrative trickery. We find ourselves raggedly torn between these two equally honorable men, and put almost into the same position as Pocahontas. It’s precisely the reason we go to the movies. We’ve let the director take his grip on us and lead us down the path into characters and identities of his own creation. And with Malick leading our way, and with characters as tastefully dimensional as these, movie-going becomes a deep artistic pleasure.

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