The New World Review

The first part of this review is a slightly revised version of the one I wrote for this site on the UK cinema release.

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: we begin with it, before any humans appear, and we end the film with it too. 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 and tedious. I’m not suggesting all films should be like this, but we should be grateful that a director like Malick is able to work in the commercial cinema. The New World 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.

Watching the film again on DVD reinforces my first impressions above. I was lucky enough to see the film on a cinema screen towards the end of its fairly limited UK cinema release, and anyone interested in Malick’s work should not pass up an opportunity to see it that way if they have one. It’s not only SFX-laden blockbusters that demand a large screen: certainly films like this, heavily dependent on atmosphere and nuance do as well. (Given Malick’s following, I’ve no doubt that The New World will turn up in repertory cinema schedules for some time to come.) The experience is a little shrunken on a small screen (well, on a 28” widescreen CRT set it is) and the film’s naysayers are unlikely to be converted.

Under review is the DVD release from New Line, encoded for Region 1 only. The New World was originally released at 150 minutes, but shortly after release Malick re-edited it to the present length of 135 minutes. I saw the shorter version in the cinema, though there were showings of the longer cut in the UK. This DVD is the shorter version. I haven’t seen the 150-minute version and, to be honest, the film is long enough already, if not overlong. I’ve no complaints about Malick going back into the editing suite, and I wish more directors would do the same, as running times these days are frequently unnecessarily bloated.

The film is transferred anamorphically in a ratio of 2.40:1. The film was originally intended to be shot in 65mm but that proved too expensive. (Apparently a few non special-effect shots used the larger format, but don’t ask me to identify them.) Instead, DP Emmanuel Lubezki used 35mm Scope (anamorphic lenses), with much use of handheld cameras and Steadicam, and entirely in natural light. The DVD transfer copes superbly with this: the greens of the jungle and the blue of darker scenes comes over very well indeed, and it’s very sharp.

The main soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, and it’s a very immersive effort, with much use of ambience (especially insect sounds) on the surround, along with James Horner’s score. For those without 5.1 capabilities, there’s an alternative in surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0. Some sequences in the native Algonquin language have fixed subtitles. There are subtitles for the featurette but not for the trailers.

The disc begins with trailers for The Thing About My Folks, Ushpizin (The Guests), Syriana, The Notorious Bettie Page and Robert Altman’s new one A Prairie Home Companion. These can be skipped.

The main extra is “Making The New World” (59:05). This is documentary whose ten parts can be selected from a menu, or you can “Play All”. Malick has had a reputation for reclusiveness: although you can see him at work in behind-the-scenes footage, he isn’t among the interviewees here. However others are happy to talk, Jack Fisk (who has been production designer on all Malick’s films since Badlands and indeed met his wife, Sissy Spacek, on that film) especially. This is rather more detailed than the usual EPK stuff, describing the building of the sets (fully three-dimensional, to give Malick and Lubezki freedom of movement). Also covered are the hiring of the native cast – including Q’Orianka Kilcher – and teaching them their lines in the now-extinct Algonquin language, and the filming of the large-scale battle sequence in the middle of the film.

Also included on the DVD are a teaser trailer (1:35) and the full-length theatrical trailer (2:31). There is no commentary, but given that Terrence Malick is by all accounts a very visually-oriented rather than verbal person, that may well be for the best. Also on the “Special Features” menu are “Sneak Peeks”. This is basically the sequence of trailers that the DVD begins with, plus one for A Cock and Bull Story in between Syriana and The Notorious Bettie Page, and ending with three Westerns for Father’s Day (The Sacketts, The Rough Riders and You Know My Name).

Finally, there are some DVD-ROM features (for PC only). These comprise interactive location photos, plus website links. However, I couldn’t get them to work. To activate the first Easter egg, highlight the New Line logo on the main menu, which will take you through to several pages of DVD credits. The second egg can be found on the Special Features menu. Go into "Making the New World" and highlight "Back" at the bottom of the screen. This should bring up some waves underneath a boat to the left - highlight this and you have 28 seconds of a large ship sailing past, presumably a deleted scene.

The New World will certainly divide audiences, who will find it either mesmerising or boring according to taste, sensibility and/or mood. Less contentious is the quality of the DVD, which presents this film probably as well as it could be on a standard-definition disc.

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out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 05:08:29

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