The New World Review
1607. Ships arrive on the North American coast, carrying the first English settlers to what would become Virginia. Among them is Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell). After a while, relations deteriorate between the settlers and the indigenous peoples. Smith is put in charge of the colony. While attempting to liaise with local chief Powahatan (August Schellenberg), Smith is captured. He is about to be put to death when a native girl he had noticed before (Q’Orianka Kilcher) pleads for his life to be spared…
This is of course the story of Pocahontas, told many times previously. However, she is not given that name in this version. (When she is christened, she becomes Rebecca.) The most recent version of this story was Disney’s animated version from 1995. Terrence Malick’s large-scale retelling of the story could not be more different.
If you’re familiar with Malick’s three earlier features (Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line) you’ll know what to expect here. Malick sees his characters as figures in a landscape, and as with the earlier work it’s that landscape that is the principal character in this film. Malick has one of the best eyes of any filmmaker working in the commercial American cinema and this film, shot entirely with available light by Emmanuel Lubezki, looks astonishing. Another word goes to the production design by longtime Malick collaborator Jack Fisk (himself an occasional director), which avoids the over-CGId look that blights too many recent historical epics. Towards the end of the film, after two hours in the jungle, we return to England, it seems as alien a place to us as it must have done to Pocahontas.
With this emphasis on place and atmosphere comes an elliptical approach to narrative. Malick edits in a way that may seem disconcerting, often cutting shots short a second or two earlier than most other directors would. Key moments in the story are underplayed. This is a strategy most common to arthouse films, and that is really what The New World is, despite its budget. On the other hand, if you’re unsympathetic to this approach, the film is likely to seem very long and slow. This isn’t really an actors’ film either: despite Malick’s trademark use of voiceover, Smith and Pocahontas are really presences rather than characters explored in great depth. That’s not to say that strong acting isn’t possible in a Malick film – think of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands - but his films work best with actors whose charisma is strong enough to carry the weight of their roles. As such Colin Farrell is perfectly adequate as Smith, and newcomer Kilcher likewise as Pocahontas, and there’s a strong supporting cast.
Unfortunately The New World has had a fairly limited release in the UK, which is a pity. Malick is a great visual stylist and if you are at all interested in this film, you should try to see it on the big screen if at all possible.
Two points to note. Early reports indicated that The New World would be shot in 65mm, but unfortunately this proved too costly. Only a few shots used this filmstock with the majority using 35mm with anamorphic lenses. No cinema is showing this film in 70mm as far as I’m aware. Secondly: The New World was shown to the press and opened in the US in a version running 150 minutes and was generally felt to be overlong. Shortly after its release, Malick re-edited the film to 135 minutes. I have heard reports that the 150-minute version has been shown in the UK, but the showing I attended was of the shorter version.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:20:21