23 January 2006

current cinema: The New World

The new world

starring: Q'Orianka Kilcher, Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, and Christopher Plummer
written and directed by: Terrence Malick
PG-13, 150 min, 2005, USA

Terrence Malick's latest offering, The New World, is more poetry than prose, more lyrical than logical, and more beautiful than most films dare dream. Set in Jamestown, Virginia[1] as the first boat of settlers comes ashore, Malick follows the initial encounters with the Naturals as they barter, negotiate, and attempt to live in some form of harmony. But these are two fundamentally different cultures who cannot even communicate effectively, so the peace is soon broken. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) is captured and about to be killed when Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) convinces her father to spare his life. Smith lives among them for a time, quickly falling in love with the Indian princess, and is allowed to return to his people with the understanding that they will leave for the far-away lands at the onset of spring. They don't.

For a film buff such as myself, a Terrence Malick release is an event unto itself. In a 35-year career, he has made a grand total of five films[2], qualifying him as the cinematic equivalent of J.D. Salinger. He taught in France for fifteen years after Badlands and made the demand in his The Thin Red Line contract that no current photos of him could be shown. Beyond question, he is not a typical director. And while he may not be the most prolific artist around, he more than makes up for it in the quality of his product, as his film are universally beautiful, challenging works of art that aim for immortality at the expense of box-office success. They may be difficult to digest, but they are impossible to disregard.

In The New World he uses the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki to build a narrative much like a documentary filmmaker would for a project about indigenous cultures in Africa. Employing the language of the nature documentary, he forgoes dialogue for long stretches, allowing the images to draw the audience into the story. Portions of the dialogue he does use is the native tongue of the Naturals, and he only subtitles it when absolutely necessary. It is such an effective choice that when Smith returns to Jamestown, the ensuing clamor of voices is as aggravating to the audience as it must have been to him.

While living with the Naturals, Smith falls in love with Pocahontas in sequences that are at the same time wildly erotic and wholesomely chaste. They bring to mind the repressed love scenes of British period dramas, where a simple touch is enough make someone melt. Whether this is a necessity stemming from Kilcher's age[3] or an actual choice is unknown, but it is effective nonetheless. In an entirely different way, he also falls in love with their way of life, marveling in his journal entries that they have no word for jealousy or hate or deceit. But maybe that's because he hasn't a clue what they're saying. For while the Naturals are more civil than the settlers, Smith projects on them a certain utopian quality that isn't entirely accurate. We know they have such words, because they are subtitled in a discussion over whether or not they should let Smith live. The Naturals aren't without their faults, but Smith fails to see them, and in the end his guilt over how his people have invaded this virgin land does more damage than he would have imagined. It's difficult to make a responsible film about this time in history without making the settlers look like absolute bastards, but Malick manages to bring in a surprising amount of balance by showing the settlers as pathetic and the Naturals as capable of the same sins as the ones that were committed against them. Still there's no question that they are ultimately the victims. But no one comes across worse than the well-meaning British woman who civilizes Pocahontas by dressing her as a proper lady.

Although it does provide Kilcher more opportunities to display her acting abilities, as she fully captures the hesitancy of someone just learning to walk in heels for the first time and otherwise adapting to an entirely new world. Just as the settlers must learn to live in a foreign land, Pocahontas must learn to live among them[4], giving the title a dual meaning. Kilcher's performance sparkles throughout in a difficult lead role, as she must play a woman dealing with a world in a constant state of flux[5]. Actually, there isn't a sub-par performance in the entire film. The only real flaw in the use of the character's journal entries as voice over narration, which gets to be a bit excessive at points, but not terribly so.

Obviously, this is not a film for everyone. Malick's direction, while self-assured, can leave the average audience member a bit cold. To me the reason is simple: Malick refuses to spoon-feed his audience, trusting that they understand the medium well enough to follow along. At no time does it feel as if he isn't completely in control of the proceedings and I cannot remember a single wasted shot in the film, but that may be because any shot which does not advance the story is at very least a beautiful one. And if you can allow yourself to be caught up in the splendor and wonder of The New World, you may not want it to end. I didn't.

[1] Also filmed in Virginia. How they found such a good location is beyond me.

[2] They are: Lanton Mills (1969), Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and this one.

[3] She was born in 1990, which makes her 15 or 16, depending on when you read this.

[4] Her father exiles her for starting the Thanksgiving tradition.

[5] She falls in love with Smith but marries Christian Bale's character, which just goes to show: Colin Farrell may be a good time, but when you're ready to settle down, Christian Bale's your man.