The New World

Year: 2005
Studio: New Line Cinema
Director: Terrence Malick
Producer: Sarah Green
Writer: Terrence Malick
Cast: Colin Farrell, Q'orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, David Thewlis, Noah Taylor, Ben Mendelsohn, Wes Studi

As I write this review, Terrence Malick is the talk of tinseltown after winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes 2011 for The Tree of Life, and I'm as excited to see it as many others.

I watched The New World in cinemas when it came out and after recently watching it again on DVD I fell even more in love with it. If you'd told me I'd ever enjoy a film nearly three hours long that has so little narrative dialogue I'd never have believed it. But watching it makes me understand people who say they can stand around looking at pictures in an art gallery. It'll be a long time before you ever see imagery so beautiful on a movie screen after you watch this.

It's a common criticism of movies that story is a lost art, but Peter Greenaway told me in a recent interview cinema was artistically bankrupt not because there were no stories, but because there were no images. He called movies stories with pictures, his message being that cinema has the means to be a much more visual medium but fails.

If that's true, Malick's style and very existence as a director is the cure, a bulwark against the waves of dross that emerge from studio marketing departments. If I had to use one word to describe everything from the script to the camerawork to the scenery (he used natural lighting in all but one location) and the sense of movement and rhythm it'd be 'poetic'.

It's not original – the story of settler Captain John Smith and the Native American princess Pocahontas had been told at the other end of the cinematic scale just ten years before by Disney to push caricatures of the noble savage, cute stuffed animal toys and soundtrack tie ins (ironically, the soundtrack of this film is so gorgeous and heartbreaking I went straight about bought it after a second viewing).

And for all Malick's strength, he was no more interested in historical accuracy than Uncle Walt was. There's never been any evidence Smith and Pocahontas were lovers, just that she took pity on the failing settlement at Jamestown and brought them food. But the love story between Smith (Farrell) and Kilcher (German born and having gone absolutely nowhere after this role) is the beating heart of the movie and you can't imagine it not belonging.

Smith arrives with the vanguard of English settlers to North America in chains for some crime we're not privy to. The only soldier aboard, he's pardoned by Captain Newport (Plummer) when they land and after tentatively making contact with the local natives, the men set to work building a fort that will be the first permanent European settlement in North America.

The dealings between the two groups are mostly friendly if a little tense, and it's during the early days Smith sees the free spirited and lovely Pocahontas dancing and running in fields with her brother. Where another director might show them tearing each others' clothes off by firelight, Smith and Pocahontas just stand close, smile, entwine fingers, touch each others' hair, and you've never seen a more tender depiction of falling in love.

When the natives speak of a city up river, Newport sends Smith to find it and establish trade while he returns to England to try and bring supplies back before Jamestown dies altogether. Crops not only fail, but when relations between the groups boil over, the Indians take revenge by destroying the fields of corn and the starving settlers are reduced to eating leather belts.

On his journey Smith is attacked and taken prisoner by Pocahontas' tribe. The chief realises the English don't mean to leave and orders Smith killed, but at the last moment Pocahontas throws herself upon him, begging for his life to be spared. It's the beginning of weeks of idyllic living as Smith befriends the tribe, both teaching them and learning from them and falling deeper for Pocahontas even as her father warns her he's an outsider and she can never be with him. He extracts a promise from Smith that his people will leave in spring, a promise Smith makes even though he knows it's a lie.

When he returns the fort is nearly gone, mutiny and starvation rampant. Discord sees him deposed and imprisoned and the desperate men are only saved when Pocahontas brings them food, an act that sees her driven out of her village and disowned by her father, the first step on the road to her new fate as she goes to live in the growing township.

Newport returns and order is restored, but when Smith is sent north to find new natives to trade with he realises how long he'll be gone and he tells the settlers to report him dead in two months so Pocahontas can move on.

And here the story turns from beautiful to beautiful and sad. Again, another director would have had Pocahontas and Smith throw themselves into each others' arms on the steps of the Royal Palace in London where they next meet. But Pocahontas grieves for Smith and begins a new life, christened Rebecca, trained to speak English and wear real clothes, and married to the kind, decent landowner Rolfe (Bale).

The reason it's so sad is because for the rest of the movie I couldn't help but feel Pocahontas' pain at having settled for her third choice in life, rejected by her people and separated forever by the man she loves. When Rolfe – after taking her to London where they have a son – realises she'll never love him like she does Smith, he offers to free her. It convinces her Rolfe's decency makes him the man for her but the days of playing and lying in the grass with Smith are gone forever. If there's any subtext maybe it's the inevitability of aging and the simpler pleasures we can never get back.

Structurally, it's a long story, and Malick relies more on poetry (in the literal sense) than mere lines. The action conveys the plot more so than any scripted dialogue, and at times I got the sense it didn't even matter what was being said – it was about the emotion behind such beautiful words as Smith and Pocahontas narrate their innermost thoughts. A sample? Pocahontas prays to whatever goddess she believes in; 'Mother, where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea? Show me your face. Give me a sign. We rise, we rise.'

Like Greenaway complained, there are too many films where at least one element is off. In TRON: Legacy, every aspect of cinematic artistry was brilliant except for the story and acting. In Source Code the premise was great but the execution shabby by comparison. Plenty of people will think the same about this film, seeing it as having no story.

But I've seen very few examples where every element serves the whole so completely. James Horner wrote the music and it's said Malick shot around it, abandoning the script and telling the actors to do what they felt, the technicians behind the camera scrambling to keep up with them. Even Farrell shines. His star's waned as the world seems to have grown tired of his off screen image, and he's never quite remembered as great as he is here.

The result is something beautifully free, not subject to editing stricture about less being more or what can be cut out to stick to the essential story. The score, the movement, the mood and the lushness infuse every frame. Like few other films of the last two decades, it's cinema as an art form, not just a story with pictures.

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