Do your homework before you go to The New World, Terence Malick's elliptical epic about John Smith, Pocahontas, and the founding of the Jamestown colony. Though the images are detailed, you won't learn many historical facts. Malick is more interested in history as myth, in emotional expressions and impressions, in existential meditation. As such, The New World is both a missed opportunity to set the record straight and a seductive mood piece on the excitement and horror when worlds collide.
"Come spirit, help us sing the story of our land..." Pocahontas invokes the native muse in voice-over, signaling we're in the old world of film poet Malick (The Thin Red Line). Colin Farrell plays Smith, who arrives at The New World in chains and promptly proves to be the Virginia Company's most valuable player. Malick never explains Smith's imprisonment, but it was most likely the result of personality clashes on the voyage. Smith is a man surrounded by folly, who can hardly persuade the gold-craving colonists to save themselves (David Thewlis plays the contrary Captain Edward Wingfield and Christopher Plummer is the largely ineffectual Captain Christopher Newport).
The future home of Jamestown, Virginia is a mesmerizing idyll, and Malick lingers on his natural obsessions, particularly soft light bouncing shimmering reflections off the water and peeking through leafy canopies. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeszki is a lock for an Oscar nomination. As with The Thin Red Line, The New World is constructed of such striking images of natural beauty, soulful close-ups, and whispered, poetic narration. "How many lands behind me, how many seas?" ponders Smith.
Pocahontas is played by newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher, who looks considerably older than her 14 years. In real life, the daughter of native chief Powhatan was most likely ten to twelve years of age when she met Smith, and most historians discount the myth of adult romance between her and Smith. Malick, who wrote the screenplay in the late '70s, happily takes the dramatic license and, following the princess' salvation of Smith, draws the two together in a moony private love. Smith sees Pocahontas as a classical feminine ideal ("She weaves things all together"), and she sees him, at least at first, as a god.
Because of Kilcher's age, the affair is limited to a few bouts of snogging and a lot of laying on the grass. The two communicate with looks, ritual gesture, and with words, as they begin to bridge the language gap. Smith labors to compartmentalize his responsibilities, troubleshooting the bedlam and despair of the oft-ailing colony while refusing to compromise his relationship with the girl (he rejects a proposal to take her hostage).
As for the native Americans, Malick focuses on the triangle of Pocahontas and her parents. The princess often begs wisdom and guidance of her mother (Irene Bedard, who voiced Pocahontas in the bowdlerized Disney account). Powhatan initially honors Pocahontas' whim to embrace Smith, but her continual contact with the colonists drives a wedge between father and daughter. The other natives (like most of the colonists) remain ciphers, though their stylized, dancerly movement emphasizes their otherness.
Christian Bale (who also voiced a character in Disney's Pocahontas) finally shows up in the last half-hour as John Rolfe, the man who would bring Pocahontas back to England. Malick affords Rolfe as much sympathy as anyone else, even as he reinvents the girl in the image of England, now her equaly exotic new world (the strangeness of manicured trees and high heels does not go unnoted). Love, too, is a new world for the threesome in this triangle, full of misspent promise and lost, lamented harmony.
Though The New World is a bit shorter than The Thin Red Line, many will find its deliberately slow pace interminable. Malick certainly flirts with artsy self-parody: in a way, The New World is like the world's longest teaser trailer for a film that never got made. The repetitive shots of trees and water and birds begin to look like narrative spackle after a while, and the existential voice-over musings on purpose, ideals, higher powers, and love—intended as poetic profundity—could just as easily be taken as dimwitted anesthesia.
But Malick offers a distinctly rare filmic experience that's genuinely independent and purely cinematic, demanding of big-screen attention. The New World, like the new world, is sensual: visual, aural, and tactile (ace production design by Jack Fisk helps). To Malick, time, circumstance, life, and love are beautiful and tragic mysteries. His big picture comprises reveries and fever dreams of early America—Malick casts not for dry history but a psychic projection of spirit from beyond the centuries.
[NOTE: This review refers to the so-called "Academy cut" of The New World. Since the film was initially screened for critics, the 150-minute cut was recalled and will be reissued January 20 in a cut that runs approximately 15 minutes shorter.]