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Information in this article, originally published January 20, was corrected January 23. In a previous version of this review, a passage of music in the film was incorrectly identified as being part of James Horner's original score. It is actually a passage from Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold."
"The New World": A love story wrapped in an ode to unspoiled land
Seattle Times movie critic
"The New World" begins and ends on the same note: lovely, seemingly random shots of trees, water rippling over rocks, sunlight reflected on a river. Over these images, a passage from Wagner's "Das Rheingold" pulses insistently; a haunting, expectant swell, like an orchestra warming up in preparation to play something astonishingly beautiful. It's the sound, quite appropriately, of a beginning.
Terrence Malick's new film is, indeed, about beginnings, but it's also the kind of historical drama in which the way the raindrops fall on the river like scattered pebbles is more important than any plot point. It moves at its own speed, creating its own dreamworld and casting a powerful spell. And it's instantly recognizable as a Malick film, for good or ill.
Malick, a poetic auteur who's made only four features in 3 ½ decades ("Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line"), is notorious for taking his time with his films, both in their onscreen pacing and their making. His work seems to exist in a different kind of time entirely, floating free of the usual storytelling conventions, and he gets away with it — his films sneak up on you, quietly beguiling.
(He continued to tinker with "The New World" even after it screened for critics in early December; this released version is some 15 minutes shorter than the December one. It gets to the story a little more quickly than the original version, at the expense of some gorgeous early shots. Malick fans can undoubtedly see these on the eventual DVD.)
This film's ambitious premise is to tell the story of John Smith and Pocahontas — the English explorer (Colin Farrell) who was among the first Europeans to arrive on American soil in 1607 and the young Native American woman (teenage newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher) with whom he forms a bond. Over the years that the film encompasses, Smith leaves again for England, and Pocahontas, told that he has died, begins a new relationship with settler John Rolfe (Christian Bale).
In the meantime, new settlements and civilizations are formed, but this is secondary to the love story, which is itself secondary to Emmanuel Lubezki's shimmering cinematography. The camera explores vast fields that look like green mazes, dancing in the tall grass and bathing in the sunlight between the trees, as classical music (familiar strains of Mozart) soars. This new world is more beautiful than any dream, and Malick depicts it as a forbidden paradise that Smith is allowed — temporarily — to enter.
There's not a great deal of dialogue in the film: Farrell, with a rock-star sweep of dark hair, and Kilcher have to depict much of their relationship through their soulful eyes. Particularly in the beginning, it's a partnership of equals: He is taken in by her tribe and learns to live as they do. The two create a language together, and the performances have a softness to them that's quite moving. There's a sad, hopeless quality to Farrell's work here; he knows this dreamworld can't last.
Kilcher, who moves with the grace of a dancer, is more of an innocent; her Pocahontas dives enthusiastically into every moment with Smith, beaming at him as they race through the grass. As the film progresses and Smith returns to England, she changes, often heartbreakingly: Assimilated by the European settlers, she becomes more "civilized" — she is tidied up, corseted, baptized and given the name Rebecca. Kilcher conveys this in a changed language of movement; she becomes less free and more precise in her motions, as if she's performing for an audience, but something passionate remains when nobody seems to be watching.
"The New World" laps over its audience like water on a deserted beach, moving so quietly that you almost don't notice that it's enveloped you. Don't look to this film for history, or for action, or for most of what we look for in an epic — this is poetry made visual. Late in the film, the lovers face each other once more. "I thought it was a dream, what we had in the forest, but it was the only truth," says Smith. A ship sails toward the sun, leaving a leaf-strewn grave behind. The beautiful dream has ended; a new world, for better or worse, begins.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company