This review is based upon the 135-minute cut of the film released to theaters in January, 2006. An earlier version of this review can be found here.
The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick upped his game something fierce. It only took a scant seven years for him to follow up that picture with a languid historical romance - "romance" in the sense of "a story about people in love", and in the more literary sense of "a fabulous or fantastic retelling of events according in a self-consciously mythic mode" - from an idea that the writer-director had been noodling with for decades. The New World is, in its most reductive form, another version of the legend of Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) of the Virginia Company, and Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher, devastating in her first performance) of the Powhatan people of what is now the state of Virginia.
There's a lot more to it than that, of course: like all Malick films, it's a treatise on the relationship between the natural landscape and the human beings inhabiting it; it's a mild critique of the white European destruction of the Native American way of life (though neither as forthright, nor as mildewy in its political earnestness, as something like Dances with Wolves); it is a tribute to the founding principals of the American democracy, while recognising those principals are more honored in the breach than the observance. And yet, it is still and all primarily about Smith and Pocahontas and their love; a study mostly of the human mind in the fits of romantic infatuation. I am inclined to say it is the most thematically focused film of Terrence Malick's career, certainly since Badlands; nearly everything that happens is ultimately brought back to its relevance to the mind of the lover, full of enthusiasm and delight and the wholehearted optimistic life in the promise a new wo- a new future.
Still, it's a Terrence Malick love story: no live-action version of the Disney Pocahontas here. It's still a lingering, painterly study of landscapes - in fact, it may well be the most beautiful of Malick's films, teaming him for the first time with Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the great living cinematographers. It's edited with as little thought for traditional rules of linear continuity editing as any of the director's films (the 135-minute cut given wide release in the early months of 2006, anyway). And when I say "the most thematically focused film of Terrence Malick's career", I do mean for the stress to land on the second half of that phrase: this is a man who has been apparently actively trying since his sophomore effort, 1978's Days of Heaven, to cram as much of the human experience into the space of one single movie. If The New World scales back on that, relatively speaking, well, never has the word "relatively" been called upon to do such extensive work so far outside of its normal duties.
The New World opens on a shot of water, and rightfully so: it is by far the wettest of all Malick's films. In this water, a girl is swimming; Pocahontas, though that word is never spoken in the movie, nor is the name of any non-white character (the one moment of the film that I absolutely do not care for is a sort of gag on this fact: "You must be-" "She doesn't use that name anymore", or words to that effect. It calls attention to the fact that she is unidentified, possibly owing to a desire to keep the film from playing as a biopicky illustration of a history book, possibly because Malick's films are rife with characters that never receive an onscreen name; and yet none of them are so transparently not-named in such an aggressive way).
The girl opens the film in voiceover, with what can only be considered an incantation, that what we are about to see stand as a testament to life and the land; and then the film continues with a musical gambit so particular and so peculiar that after three viewings, I still don't quite know what to make of it. The credits start up - and lovely credits they are, too, showing an old-fashioned map animated in a decidedly new-fashioned, even Flash-esque style, revealing by inches the waterways of the eastern American coast - and along with them starts up the score by James Horner. And perhaps all of this only sticks in my mind because, in general, I don't have much use for Horner's work; but it strikes me that The New World has perhaps the most overt original score of any Malick film (though his films all have original scores, the most striking musical moments are nearly always those involving previously-written pieces), and one that suffers not a little from the composer's characteristic tendency to pillage his own back-catalogue - in this case, one of the primary recurring motifs is a dead ringer for one of the most prominent cues in Braveheart. But I was saying, the credits are accompanied by a horn-driven piece that positively smacks of yearning and unexplored vistas and, somehow, paintings of Pilgrims in their belt-buckle hats, and to be fair, this is not at all an inappropriate note for The New World to begin on. After a short while, though, the music dissolves, into a soundscape of outside noises, and then, so subtly it barely registers, a low drone starts up: the opening of the 136 bar Vorspiel to Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold, which is itself one of the wettest compositions in the history of Western music, and therefore an entirely excellent companion to Malick's watery picture; it will, in the end, serve almost exactly the same function as the Orff Schulwerk "Gassenhauer" in Badlands, opening and closing the movie, and punctuating one scene of special importance in the middle; it is this movie's theme, as was the "Gassenhauer", as Carnaval des animaux was in Days of Heaven, as the Melanesian chants were in The Thin Red Line.
To our particular point right now: the Rheingold Vorspiel is one of the great examples of crescendo in Western music, and it is also one of the great slow boils: it takes ages to get going, and by the time it has, the more susceptible listener will already have been lulled into a light hypnotic state by the barely perceptible fluctuations in tone. For Wagner, this was the piece that took us out of our world and took us by the hand into an impossibly distant world of legend and myth; that's essentially the same function that Malick puts us to, though the Jamestown settlement in 1607 is hardly the same as the Germanic hills of pre-medieval lore, nor is the director so incredibly tasteless as to draw any serious comparisons between Pocahontas and a Rhinemaiden.
The key, though, is that The New World opens with a gambit that could hardly be more particularly intended to sedate the audience, to send us drifting, and the imagery accompanying the Vorspiel is hardly designed to keep us alert: a collection of beatific pastoral images of Powhatan people watching with rapt attention the arrival of the English ships, contrasted with images of those same English people readying to land, not "pastoral" in any useful sense, but certainly laid back and still. We are introduced to Smith, locked in irons, emerging from the shadows of the hold (a shot designed to bring the most attention to Farrell's haunted, questing eyes - the actor has never been better & more subtle than in this film); the second shot we see of this man is his hands, raised up to the sole source of light; grasping for water, but the gesture looks unmistakably like a supplication to heaven. Which is the best summary of the effect of this whole sequence I can imagine.
As to the film's subsequent plot, it's easy enough to sketch (spoilers, but, I mean, really): the troublemaker Smith is freed on account of his obvious skill and use to the Virginia Company, under the leadership of Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer); at first the "naturals", as the English refer to those natives near their landing site, remain mostly inquisitive and distant, but after a semi-accidental murder of one of the more inquisitive Powhatans, Newport decides to send Smith and a team upriver to find their chieftain (August Schellenberg). During this journey, Smith is captured and held for quite some time; his execution is interrupted by the chief's daughter, Pocahontas, and the young woman and the vagabond soldier quickly fall in love. Eventually, Smith is released to find Jamestown in dire straits, with resources scarce; it is solely through Pocahontas's intervention that the whites survive the first winter. This does not serve her well with her people, and she is made into an outcast; soon, there are open hostilities between the English and the naturals, by the end of which Smith has left Virginia in a state of minor disgrace, while Pocahontas is sold as ransom to the settlers, who use her as a shield against her father's armies. Falsely believing Smith to be dead, she allows herself to be baptised "Rebecca", and marries planter John Rolfe (Christian Bale). Eventually, she is invited to England at the personal request of the king, finds a very much alive Smith, and the two lovers find that their past glory cannot be recaptured. Smith disappears to whatever fate will take him, while Rebecca grows sick and dies.
That broad outline is covered in the movie so as not to be confusing per se; yet the film is constructed so that the connecting tendons between each of the major plot points are rather confusing indeed, or at least rather mixed-up and opaque. Malick's aesthetic is often called impressionist; it is both a cliché and a comfortingly handy way to refer to the man's style. But none of his films, save maybe the subsequent The Tree of Life, fit the bill quite so readily as The New World, which really does play as a series of impressions and nothing more. The fact is, even from that first landing sequence, the movie plays as its own Cliffs Notes, summarising moments more than it necessarily depicts them. Action flows so quickly at times that a scene will often simply present itself without our clearly understanding how it got there: a great example is Smith's initial capture by the natives, which follows so hard upon his departure from Jamestown that it's rather hard to follow all the steps; I'm never entirely clear where the rest of the exploratory team got do when Smith is standing alone in a desperately picturesque grove of thin trees rising up from a marsh. The four editors (only one of whom, Saar Klein, had worked with the director before; it is the only Malick film on which Billy Weber did not work in any editorial capacity whatsoever) shape the material in a way that makes some kind of narrative sense in terms of large narrative chunks and expansive movement from place to place, but often very little or none at all in the moment-to-moment transition between shots and scenes, to a degree more deliberately non-standard than even the gleefully inventive Days of Heaven.
Malick's script provides its own key to why this should be. Numerous times in the film, one character or another refers to the sensation of being in a dream (Pocahontas, Smith, and Rolfe all get narration); when we last see him, Smith notes with more dissatisfaction than sorrow that he is no longer dreaming. When a word that laden with significant meaning gets thrown around that often, it's best to pay attention, and I am inclined to take The New World at face value: this is a dream-film. Though I do not think it is about dreaming in the way we do when we are asleep; it is about the dreams we have when we are awake but in a state of absolute peace and perfect self-reflection.
That is to say, the structure of the film represents a detached, free-flowing sense of self-awareness; it comes from the piercing feeling of being in love, and from the disorienting sense of being in a strange place. Though perhaps being in love is the same as being in a strange place, and this is the point Malick intends to make.
Throughout, Lubezki's impeccable cinematography creates, over and over again, a sense of being caught inside the loveliest impression of grandeur and bliss ever painted - you can count on your hands the number of shots in the film that involved any artificial light whatsoever, and the effect is indescribably seductive. It is a film that bursts beyond realism into a hyper-real abstraction: yes, light looks like that, but light in movies does not, and since we are used to watching movies that look like movies, what we see in The New World is exhilarating to the point of stupefaction (much the same is true of Jack Fisk's outstanding production design, with the buildings of Jamestown famously constructed using the same carpentry techniques available to the settlers; so too Jacqueline West's costumes). Not having seen every movie of the '00s, I shouldn't say this, but I'm happy to call The New World the most technically accomplished work of cinematography of the decade; it's also on the shortlist for most beautiful.
There are, broadly speaking, three movements in the film: the largest by far is the opening, in which Smith is dazzled by the scope and grandeur of his new world, while Pocahontas exults in the freedom of her lifestyle (if the film has one overarching flaw, it's the depiction of Native Americans as just altogether more with-it and in-tune that white people: Malick manages to cut the worst excesses out of this by including several entirely unexpected sequences of realpolitik amongst the Powhatan leaders, but you can only show so many scenes of natives frolicking in wheat fields before the effect starts to become a wee bit noble savagey). This ends in sorrow for both: the girl, stripped of her people and her identity, is caught in a restrictive world that makes no sense, while Smith is made aware that his ideal of a new world has been overtaken by reality.
The second movement is the restorative courtship of Rolfe and the new Rebecca; it is largely covered in one montage, covering several years, and is the most sedate of the three.
The third and final movement is the London sequence, played masterfully by the director: occupying only about 23 minutes of the total running time, it feels much bigger than that. By this point, we have been so accustomed to the footage of Virginia, beautifully sunlight and filled with plants; the stony and overcast London scenes are such a dramatic contrast that we're taken quite aback as Rebecca is, even though this is in all essentials mostly the same as any given prestige period drama. It is the minor-key sequence of the film, where we are aware that the end is nearing (after that much bright lighting, the greyness has a profound and largely subliminal effect in making us aware the the movie is starting to close down); the moment that dreaming is replaced by a much less beautiful and exquisite consciousness.
That awakening can be from sleep; it can be from the unsustainable joy of romance or the sentimental bliss of the nature lover. The New World ends with a shot that suggests continuity, that those wonderful fields and forests, which were given such a heavenly glow in the peak of Smith and Pocahontas's connection to each other and their world, still remain and are still grand. Yet there is something about that last shot of trees, soaring above us and pointing towards heaven and the infinite, that seems just a little washed out, as though the reality of England and civilisation has infected it. And of course we know the history, that the new world would become as overrun with people and machines as the old world; those same places where Pocahontas and Smith loved are now malls and subdivisions. The New World is beautiful and graceful, it heightens the spirit and is drunk with its affection of the hypnotic rhythms of nature; yet it's ultimately an elegy, bittersweet and cutting. I am somewhat inclined to call it my least favorite Malick film, but that's in the company of one of the highest batting averages in the history of the medium. "Least among masterpieces" doesn't make something less of a masterpiece.