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The New World
posted 01/20/06 |
It's all in the eyes.
That's one of the lessons in The New World, an epic story of love and change, from the celebrated writer/director Terrence Malick. As the Europeans arrive on North American shores in 1607, we watch history unfold through the eyes of two characters on opposite sides of a cultural divide: John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher).
The New World is an extravagant achievement in historical recreation. It's also the most refined example of Malick's visual poetry, which he developed through Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. He has a meditative style all his own that will aggravate many viewers who prefer straightforward narrative and conventional Hollywood flourishes. He's not an entertainer so much as he is a poet who uses pictures instead of words. Creation itself pours forth speech, as the psalmist says, and Malick invites those with eyes to see to look closer and listen carefully.
At times, the imagery captured by Emmanuel Lubezki's camera feels like a dream: a line of birds unfurling from the forest like a whip, a lightning blast whiting out the wilderness, andMalick's favorite spectaclewind in the grass.
Colin Farrell as Captain John Smith
But we're given more than the wonders, joys, and horrors that Smith and Pocahontas witness. Malick lets us eavesdrop on their private thoughts, the way we listened to the philosophical soldiers of The Thin Red Line. Their inner monologues distill their experiences into primal questions: What compels men to control or destroy what they don't understand? Where does the conscience come from? What does love require of us?
If eyes are windows to the soul, John Smith's soul is deeply troubled. He's a haunted, damaged, guarded man. When he's released from imprisonment in a ship's holding cell, brought out into broad daylight, and given a chance to redeem himself for "mutinous remarks," Smith looks at this "promised land" through a turbulent mix of fear and ambition.
He has reason to be afraid: His own people are volatile, quarreling, and divided over who should lead them in the unexplored territory. When winter arrives and food grows scarce, some will turn downright beastly. These Europeans talk like a God-fearing bunch, but the irony is a thick as the mud on their boots. One moment they're musing about God's love and growing nostalgic for Eden, and the next they're tying up natives and loading their pistols.
Under the direction of Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer), the Jamestown settlement begins to take shape. Newport, striving to gain a firm foothold for London's Virginia Company in this "promised land," speechifies about how this paradise was given to the Englanders by God, and "wobetide the man who turns his back on him." Too late. Ungodly behavior has already begun in earnest, as they dig in their heels and jealously plot how to take ownership of the territory.
Smith is also properly wary of the distrustful and dangerous natives, members of an ancient culture ruled by a chieftain called Powhatan (August Schellenberg). The first meeting of these contrary societies is an intense pageant of amazement and curiosity that sets our nerves on edge.
Despite Smith's burning gaze, the eyes that will haunt you long after the credits roll belong to the young, impetuous, graceful girl who saves his life from the natives' wrathPocahontas. Through her eyes, the natural beauty of a land her culture has long called home seems to be newly born, the forest taking its first breath, the trees stretching skyward in exuberance.
Her compassion wins Smith's freedom and slowly drives the shadows from his troubled eyes, inspiring him to tenderness and a longing for "a new start, a fresh beginning." Thus, Smith and the girl begin a cautious, curious, flirtatious dance, winding through Powhatan's neighborhood, one of the most beautiful courtships ever filmed.
Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) bridges the divide between the Native Americans and the white settlers
Malick choreographs a passionate love story that respects their intuitive relationship. The love flowering in this remnant of Eden is erotic in the purest sense of the word: a reverent intimacy of minds, bodies, and spirits. And while it isn't clear whether they consummate the relationshipit may have been chaste, it may not haveit's nonetheless the real deal, powerfully superior to the common Hollywood misconception that true love is best commemorated with titillating sex scenes. (I'm talking to you, Cold Mountain!)
Kilcher was just 14 when this was filmed, and Farrell is almost 30. But while there is speculation about the reality of the Smith/Pocahontas romance, historical accounts confirm the age difference between these two, and the fact that their friendship became a vital, influential link between cultures.
Thus, it's excruciating to watch this vulnerable girl bruised in the crucible of European progress, betrayed by the newcomers and their liesand by her own people as well. Malick finds in Pocahontas a metaphor for all things that pure, virginal, and innocent: her beauty will inspire evil impulses to claim, conquer, and corrupt her. Malick unleashes astonishing battle scenesswift and dizzying storms in which the natives' speed makes rifles seem impractical. Caught in the middle of a hateful conflict, Pocahontas faces tough choices between what the world valuestradition, trinkets, property, powerand the costly rewards of true love. Her selfless attempts to bridge the divide provides a deeply moving portrait of selfless devotion.
But there is a third perspective central to this story. Late in the film, we meet a widowed farmer named John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who resembles John Smith with one fundamental difference. Again, it's in the eyes. In a typical big screen epic, the rival for the heroine's heart is a man confined by tradition, seeking marriage, and oozing evil from every pore. And Rolfe has all the makings of a big screen villainhe's traditional, he grows tobacco, and what is more
he's a Christian!
Thus, it's disorienting to find that Rolfe's gaze is quiet, gentle and inquisitive. He's drawn to this broken princess out of a shared sense of suffering. "Are you kind?" she asks him, unsure whether she can ever trust a white manor any manto be honest with her again. Rolfe's response is a gaze of such grace that it's likely some filmmaker will invite Christian Bale to play the next big screen Jesus. (He's already familiar with the part.)
Christopher Plummer as Captain Christopher Newport
Speaking of the Messiah, Malick also includes the true story of Pocahontas's baptism and conversion to Christianity, although he leaves the sincerity of her decisions open to interpretation. Who could blame her for being suspicious of European religion after all that she has seen? But there is hope in the fact that Rolfe represents a different kind of European, a truer kind of Christian.
And so we are drawn through three distinct spiritual journeys: OneJohn Smithreluctantly allows ambition to interfere with his quest for love. OnePocahontasstubbornly clings to passion through chapters of traumatic change, until her hope is nearly quenched. The thirdJohn Rolfewatches with world-weary wisdom, bold compassion, and a patient willingness to serve a girl whose heart yearns for someone else. Ultimately, The New World defines true love as something more than desire, nostalgia, or sexual chemistry. It boldly condones a higher love characterized by selflessness and fidelity, love that shelters, protects, honors, and heals.
Bale's performance is one of severalincluding strong turns by Christopher Plummer, David Thewlis, Wes Studi, and Noah Taylorthat seems to have been cut short when The New World suffered a severe, last minute edit, cutting some 16 minutes from the original version. (We catch fleeting glimpses of Ben Chaplin and Jonathan Pryce along the way as well.) This edit may have streamlined the storytelling, but it has also produced disorienting transitions.
The two leads, however, are given generous space to win our hearts, and they do. Farrell is riveting, commanding our attention whenever he's onscreen . . . except when Kilcher steps in. What a discovery she is! Her profoundly affecting work is probably too subtle to capture the attention of Oscar voters, but she outdoes any other performance by an actress this year while speaking only a few lines.
John Rolfe (Christian Bale) would eventually marry the young Powhatan girl
James Horner enhances it all with some of his finest orchestration, supporting a prominent motif drawn from Wagner that swells like the burgeoning desire for paradise within these imprisoned souls.
Malick deserves acclaim as well, not just for his imagination, but for fairness. Just as he shows us Christian hypocrites and Christian heroes, he admirably refuses to idealize either the colonists or the natives, avoiding caricature and showing that the true battle is not between one tradition or another, but between good and evil in every human heart. Smith's conscience moves him to a psalm-like plea: "Lord, turn not away thy face. I have not harkened to your voice." By contrast, his kinsman mutters, "Conscience is a nuisance. A fly. A barking dog."
Some critics are already drawing parallels between Malick's version of this story and current headlines regarding foreign occupations, homeland security, and "culture wars." But Malick's movie transcends convenient correlations. It becomes not a matter of which culture is right or wrong, but how individuals in either camp will behave as children of God.
In one easily overlooked moment, Pocahontas gazes at a tree that, despite a broken branch, continues to grow toward the light. Malick returns frequently to the images of trees that tower and sway, heads disappearing into the heavens. In doing so, he reminds us that, regardless of which culture gains supremacy, or what is lost along the way, what truly matters is how we respond to the summons of that heavenly light. The gentle coaxing of that still small voice asks us to turn our eyes toward the source of a love that can sustain us through any loss and any change.
1. Discuss the development and decline of the relationships between Powhatan's people and the English colonists. What went wrong? What might have been done to avoid such a collapse?
2. Compare Pocahontas's relationships with Smith and Rolfe. How are they different? What do you think of Pocahontas's final decision about the two relationships? What motivates it?
3. Where do you see cultures colliding today? Consider the dividing cultural lines between nations, between religions, in your school, and in the church. Where does it seem differences are irreconcilable? What figures in history have given the world an example of bridge-building between different societies?
4. Where do you see cultures colliding today? Consider the dividing cultural lines between nations, between religions, in your school, and in the church. Where does it seem differences are irreconcilable? What figures in history have given the world an example of bridge-building between different societies?
This film deserves its PG-13 rating for intense battle sequences that are surprisingly short on blood and carnage.
Photos © New Line Cinema
© Jeffrey Overstreet 2006, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.
What Other Critics Are Saying
Terrence Malick has made only four films in three decades: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and now The New World. The first two have, over time, been recognized as classics. The Thin Red Line seems to be following in their footsteps, provoking thoughtful discussion among cinephiles for its lyrical cinematography and its unique contemplative style.
The New World may become a classic as well, but it's too early to say. As is the case with many masterpieces, critics are initially divided in their responses. Malick's style is so different, it is enthralling for some, boring and even annoying for others. The New World makes heavy use of the internal monologues, thoughtful questions, and poetic flourishes that dominated The Thin Red Line. Its complex, layered use of metaphor and symmetry make it a work that cannot be adequately assessed in one viewing.
Thus, it's likely to frustrate viewers who want a more traditional narrative, a lot of action, and a conventional romance. Here's a filmmaker who's as interested in the swaying trees as he is in the battles. The way he tells a love story, the audience becomes invested in one romantic relationship, only to be asked to shift gears and consider an alternative suitor two-thirds of the way through the film.
Malick's version of the myth of John Smith and Pocahontas begins with the arrival of the British on the shores of Virginia territory in 1607, and ends a decade later when Pocahontas visits London. History buffs will probably file complaints, but Malick is more interested in the power of myth than the facts, more invested in spiritual questions than historical accuracy, examining the dynamics of cultural collisions in the manner of a poet rather than a documentarian.
Brett McCracken (Relevant) says this film begins where The Thin Red Line ended: "with a boat of weary men escaping a brutal past and hoping for a new start. Though Line is set some 335 years after World, both films evoke a vision of humanity's quest to transcend imperfect circumstance and begin anew. It is a sentiment of man's soul that has driven him since he lost Eden. How do we regain what was given us? Can we ever reach those distant shores and 'exchange this false life for a true one'?"
McCracken exhorts viewers, "Let the film wash over you like a piece of music in headphonesget immersed, open your eyes and ears and you will find The New World revelatory."
Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) shares excerpts from his interviews with the cast, and says The New World "is of a piece with Malick's other films, which emphasize visual poetry over more conventional forms of drama or narrative. For Malick, plot and character are less important than memory and experience. Malick's dream-like visual style, and the way he holds seemingly unrelated images together through contemplative voice-overs, make for challenging viewing. But in some ways, The New World is one of his more accessible films."
Steve Beard (Thunderstruck) says, "If you are looking for a documentary on colonial life, watch the History Channel. If you are intrigued by a poetic love and loss story with all the elements of out-of-the-ordinary filmmaking, make sure to catch Terrence Malick's New World."
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) feels very differently. "The New World generates only mild interest before turning into a tedious bore. It's a crushing disappointment."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) writes: "This is definitely not the Disney version.
We get no silly Indian babe in tight buckskins mooning over a buff, surfer dude-ish John Smith. Instead, director Terrence Malick has taken us to the heart of the story. He makes extensive use of voice-overs to give us the principals' thoughts, and while this is normally death to a movie, here it works because it lets us hear Pocahontas' musings (in English), which manage to be mature yet naive, and John Smith's self-doubt and conflicted loyalties."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) makes a remarkable comparison between The New World and The Passion of the Christ, and then concludes, "Without a doubt, the most polarizing aspect of Malick's work is not his politics, but his unique cinematic style, for some a transcendent revelation, for others a crashing bore. I find myself not quite in either camp. Malick's painterly images and meditative voiceovers are not for me the overwhelming force of nature they are for some, but I'm willing to be swept along by them, if what they have to say is potent enough. For me, that makes The New World a partial success, an intriguing if flawed film."
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Based on the film's trailers, one might expect The New World
to be a politically correct, revisionist drama that pits idyllic 'naturals' against imperialistic white settlers; but those willing to submit themselves to Mr. Malick's lyrical style may find the film is more than it first appears to be." He praises the characters as "unexpected and multilayered."
Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) say, "The New World is a plodding tale with too many untold loose ends. However, the film's saving grace is the captivating acting of young Q'Orianka Kilcher who was only 14 years old when the filming began. Her portrayal of innocence is what makes the story worth seeing."
Jared Wilson (World) calls the film "a beauty and a wonder." He raves, "The New World is not a conventional film, but then, this is not a conventional story. At least, not in the world of history uninformed about history books (as Ebert quite rightly notes). It is messy and beautiful and complicated equally by what we know and what we don't know. It is a credit to Terrence Malick that he eschews revisionism from either cultural vantage point and instead creates a work of art, a historical piece made all the more true precisely because it operates on the level of myth. It is like the cinematic equivalent of C.S. Lewis's novel Till We Have Faces, which incarnationally re-imagines the story of Cupid and Pysche. Malick has taken a legend and made it human. He has translated fact into the poetry and portraiture of myth and thereby made it true."
Jenn Wright (Hollywood Jesus) says, "If you generally appreciate director Terrence Malick's body of work (The Thin Red Line, Badlands, Days of Heaven), The New World will reinforce your devotion. The film is visual poetry, with stunning cinematography and impassioned acting accompanied by an impressive classical score by James Horner. And while the story itself is largely speculation, the movie is incredibly well researched, with much of the voiceover (one of Malick's favorite cinematic devices) lifted directly from the writings of the colonists." She praises Q'Orianka Kilcher's lead performance as having "stunning depth, retaining the historically playful nature of Pocahontas while plumbing the depths of grief, loneliness, and despair."
John Murphy (Godspy) examines the films of Terrence Malick, including his latest. "For Malick, humanity's destruction/disruption of nature is an expression of our fallen state, our spiritual poverty. His films are a lament for a lost world of innocence and for subsequent disunity with the physical world. This is a pre-Christian, Old Testament view of the worldwe have not been redeemed. We've been expelled from the Garden, cut-off from the presence of God in nature. Each film is Genesis retold: a paradise lost, a fall from grace, man divided against himself."
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