Not just any historical epic, Terrence Malick’s The New World is a 135-minute, Zen-like meditation on the elements of earth as well as the beauty, and disruption, of nature.
In other words, there’s not much action in this story of John Smith, Pocahontas and the 1607 settlement of Jamestown, Va. And, as could be argued of Malick’s few movies, its contemplativeness constantly teeters on the edge of boredom.
More than most other filmmakers, Malick mines film’s visual power and the finer points of musical structure and selection. (Like narrative symphonic works, there’s a distinct prelude and coda, and what cries out “cinematic” better than Wagner?)
There are no computer-generated skylines here, only all-natural locations so simplistically beautiful it’s hard to believe they still exist on our ever-expanding planet. Still, after the first five shots of still water rippled by boats or boots, we get Malick’s point that magnificent land is somehow spoiled once touched by outsiders.
Comets pass Earth with more frequency than Malick making a movie; his masterfully minimal The Thin Red Line was in 1998 and his last film before that was in 1978. Because of his finer-points pacing, good actors treat appearances in his productions as some sort of holy pilgrimage.
But, as in Thin, big actors get bit parts. John Savage and Noah Taylor are reduced to shouting at the screen, Christopher Plummer and David Thewlis get about five minutes of screen time each, and Jonathan Pryce utters no dialogue whatsoever in a blink-and-miss-it bit as England’s king. Plus, despite the star power of Colin Farrell and Christian Bale (both unfailingly shabby chic), they’re essentially scenery for the scenery.
Theirs are two of the film’s three actual performances, and both are outdone by an actress you’ve never seen before — Q’Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas. This teen actress’s exuberantly expressive performance is alive with life’s basic pleasures and passions and she is the film’s pulse.
As English boats land on her Powhatan tribe’s shores, Pocahontas is one of many natives scrambling to get a good look at these huge, strange vessels. Shackled for mutiny below one of their decks is John Smith (Farrell), a captain whose emotions run as high as his dream to explore.
Once Smith lands, whatever mutinous intent he had is replaced by virtuous respect for the land, which he intones in a soupy voiceover. For those of us without a storied background in history, details of this change might be in reported 150- or 180-minute versions. Four credited editors apparently have done as much chopping as the Jamestown settlers do to all those pretty trees.
Sent to negotiate with the Powhatan chief (August Schellenberg), Smith is ambushed, kidnapped and marked for death until Pocahontas throws herself on him in a plea for mercy. Sensing she could learn from this particular Englishman — far more levelheaded than his counterparts who refer to raiding and pillaging as “poking about” — the chief makes him a tribal guest.
The Smith-Pocahontas romance that blooms has nothing to do with cute raccoons or Vanessa Williams songs, only compelling moments when physical touches raise visible goose bumps and eloquent passages as Smith mentally wrestles between his intent for her and his vagabond ways. Farrell and Kilcher smolder as they attempt to navigate their love through a vast cultural divide.
But because the Jamestown settlers are boiling their own belts and eating the dead for food, it’s not long before things get violent. A brutal blood-and-mud battle where blows are exchanged between actual people is invigorating, tragic and a welcome respite from digital armies.
In the clash’s aftermath, Smith is assigned to find the Indies and leaves behind Pocahontas, who has been exiled from her tribe for presumed betrayal. With Smith presumed dead, she takes a fancy to John Rolfe (Bale), adopts the “Christian name” Rebecca, marries and starts a family.
The film’s subtlety of suggesting Smith and Pocahontas both are voyagers with insatiable desires to explore is a good one. But English life’s effect on Pocahontas just isn’t as compelling as how the American Indian ways work on Smith. A subplot about one of Pocahontas’ fellow tribe members, Opechancanough (Wes Studi), traveling to England with her on order from his chief goes nowhere.
Despite an emotionally knotty love triangle that arises, the film’s final act is almost interminable. When Pocahontas’ free spirit is constricted, so is the movie. At this low point, The New World is as untethered from its rapturous, gripping beginning as its lovers are from their respective cultures.