Like everything else Terrence Malick has touched on film, “The New World” is a uniquely philosophical and artistic achievement. But is that enough to make up for its lack of the more conventional components of a film – plot, dialogue and action? Against all odds, the answer is yes. Though it may be lost on the mainstream theater audience, the movie is breathtaking and, even in its almost excruciating long-windedness, somehow manages to transcend its limitations.
“The New World” is actually not a story of new-found lands, their people or the outside explorers; rather, it’s more an amalgamation of all these told through the eyes of three historical names: Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and John Rolfe. The story should be familiar to audiences – the love of John Smith (Colin Farrell, “Alexander”) and the Native American princess Pocahontas (newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher), having been cinematically explored in detail before (but no Vanessa Williams vocals this time, sadly). Through Malick’s trademark poetic pacing, narrative and dreamlike camera movement, we are told this very human story and made to realize the tragic implications of its nuances for each of the characters and their people.
Though it has been advertised in trailers as a swashbuckling adventure tale, “The New World” is a surprisingly (and, at times, annoyingly) calm and stoic film. Farrell’s Smith seems almost tame, only taking up his sword on rare occasions – he’s more of a philosopher than a soldier. Pocahontas too is a deeper character than we’re used to, pondering the significance of the Europeans’ coming and the dangers of her love for Smith.
The last person in the love triangle is John Rolfe, a character often overlooked in the Pocahontas legend, played masterfully here by Christian Bale (“Batman Begins”). Bale’s remarkable emotional range, from his sly smile to fatherly grimace, are all put to good use by Malick, adding an uncommon sensitivity to the tobacco farmer who eventually marries Pocahontas.
The characters have minimal dialogue, with most of the story told through action and voiceover narration. Their ruminations give rare insight into their actions before and as they happen, giving the viewer the unique ability to judge the actions in their appropriate context. Though it might seem irrational for Smith to refuse Pocahontas, the unprecedented insight the audience has on his thoughts fosters understanding. Adding to the overall poetic, understated nature of the film is James Horner’s singular score. Unassuming and at times nonexistent, the music reflects the emotions of the characters with uncanny precision.
“The New World” ends not to the sound of blaring instruments but to the soft chirping of birds and quiet clashes of waves. It is indeed an odd feeling that envelops moviegoers as they leave to a completely silent theater, punctuated only by the muffled shuffling of feet. In this hush too lies a message from Malick – for all the swords, spears and ships, it’s the birds who have the last say.