By John H. Foote
Watching the crisp, pristine images on the Criterion Collection’s breathtaking The New World (2005), I can appreciate (with limitations) all the fuss about Terrence Malick. He understands the language of the cinema as well as any director at work today. He is known for his ability to tell his story with imagery. People so often forget that originally film did not have, nor need, sound and directors learned how to tell their stories with images instead. Watching The New World on this superb Blu Ray, it felt like I was experiencing a forest for the first time, seeing the thick growth of cedars, with images so clear that I could even smell the aroma of a dense pine grove.
As it was in his fine war film The Thin Red Line (1998), nature is as important a character as those on two legs. This film represented Malick’s return to directing after a 20-year hiatus. Meditative, exploring the impact of war on nature as much as man, this is a beautiful film, thoughtful, provocative and often the topic of debate regarding its place in great cinema. Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, it lost the bulk of awards to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and then both films lost Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love. For the record, I think Saving Private Ryan is the greater film, despite a startling flaw, though is certainly more meditative. The combat sequences in Spielberg’s film are second to none, and Tom Hanks is simply magnificent in the film.
Malick waited seven years before directing The New World, a poetic version of the Pocahontas and John Smith love story, startling in its realism, beautiful in its execution and realism. After that, Malick gave us The Tree of Life (2011), a strangely beautiful, tonal piece about a Texas family set if the 1950’s (mostly), moving through the tragedies in their lives, which some critics adored. I liked the film, especially the performances of Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and the cinematography, but never felt the film was a masterpiece. To appreciate the film, one has to get comfortable with the silence that Malick uses so strategically, filling the screen with images instead of action or words.
His next three films have been the greatest example of modern artistic masturbation I have ever experienced. For all the respect and reverence his work has garnered, there is not likely a director working today who is more pretentious and self-indulgent than Terrence Malick. To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017) were incoherent messes that I defy anyone to explain. All three made it to my annual list of the 10 worst films of the year.
Malick redeemed himself at TIFF in 2019 with A Hidden Life, an exquisitely beautiful film about a man refusing to conform with the Nazis. Critics love to fawn over Malick, and for some reason, few have the nerve to call him on his misses. And the comparisons to Kubrick? Please, Terrence Malick is no Kubrick. His masterpieces in the 1970’s – Badlands (1973) and (less so) Days of Heaven (1978) – made him something of a legend. Badlands has influenced Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, some of the greatest directors in modern film.
For me his finest work, and possibly least seen, is The New World. The film feels like an awakening of the senses, capitalizing on the sheer beauty of the forests of Virginia. The British came to the pristine shores of Virginia in 1605, we are told, and were immediately captivated, yet challenged, by the land. But Malick’s film is about two distinct discoveries, the first being the discovery of Virginia by the British; the second being Pocahontas’ discovery of these strange new people and eventually, their land.
Told with patience, allowing the stunning images and brilliant actors to do their work, so much of the film is about movement. Watching the natives encounter the British for the first time is a scene of wonderment. At first, they sniff them and learn what men smell like after weeks at sea. They don’t like the smell of them, nor do they trust them.
When the British arrive on the American shores, a young Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) is set to be executed for insubordination, but his life is spared at the last-minute by the senior Captain, portrayed by the wonderful Christopher Plummer. This is not the first time Smith will be saved — just as he is about to be killed by a Chief for trespassing on the camp, the Chief’s daughter, the beautiful Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), sees something worthy in him and throw herself across his body, asking her father that he be spared.
At the heart of the film is the poetic relationship between the young Princess and John Smith, dancing towards a consummation of relationship (that we never see). There is no question the two have intense heat between them, but to defile the tribe’s Princess would bring war. In the time they spend together, they learn to communicate using movement, gesture, and eventually language. Smith realizes the natives are at one with the land, with no interest in conquering it as the British have come to do. When they visit the haphazard fort the British have built, they do so bearing gifts of food, warm clothing and blankets for the coming brutal winter. They also teach the British—about planting crops, fishing, and food storage, how to use every part of the deer they shoot. They truly live off the land, but always with great respect. The British never learn their lessons, and they suffer mightily for it.
When the young Princess returns to Britain with the crew on one of the return expeditions, she does so as a guest of the royalty of Britain and is treated as a celebrity. She marries, but shockingly not to John Smith, instead to an industrious farmer, Rolfe (Christian Bale), a good man who treats her very well.
Kilcher is fabulous as the curious newcomer, exploring England in tight and uncomfortable clothes, walking in ridiculous shoes.
As was the British practice when they sought to colonize lands, they declare war against the Natives. Though the Brits had numbers on their side, they are no match for the Natives. The fort is easily breached by the Natives, who are better organized and creative in their use of weapons. Their mastery of clubs carved from the branches of fallen trees, bow and arrows and spears astonishes the British, who believed this would be an easy conquer. In the end, they will claim the new world as their own, but time has shown land belongs to no one. We are all just visiting a while.
Colin Farrell does his best screen work here as a leading man, those haunted, sad brown eyes reflecting what he sees in his countrymen. He does not see the Natives as the enemy, he never did and not just because of his love for the girl. Smith is an explorer, not a warrior; he can fight but would prefer not to. Left in charge, he protects the British, but it sickens him to do so. For him there is no joy in taking the lives of the people who had befriended him. His love for the Princess is palpable; she is his soulmate. Farrell is a magnificent actor who gained a reputation early in his career as a party animal but has since settled into his art and is now a gifted actor.
Kilcher is a revelation as Pocahontas, an absolute miracle of a performance. Think how wrong this could have gone: Malick must have been pressured to cast the like of Reese Witherspoon (ugh), Gwyneth Paltrow (double ugh) or any one of the up-and-coming actresses in Hollywood. But Malick doesn’t succumb to pressure. He chose Q’Orianka Kilcher, cousin of the singer Jewel, and she delivered a superb performance. Through Smith, we see the Natives; through the Princess, we see the strangeness of the British, arriving on their “Floating islands” in their strange metal suits (armour) and odd ways. The young actress can speak through her eyes, and actually has very few lines, delivering the kind of superb near-silent performance Holly Hunter did with the sublime The Piano (1993). Hers is a majestic piece of acting about a young girl undergoing extraordinary change that will eventually take her across the sea to Britain and into legend. How was she ignored by the Academy? How was the entire film ignored?
Continuing with the cast, the majestic August Schellenberg has such a regal face and noble presence, we immediately know he is the chief of the tribe. He orders executions with firm resolve, but his face betrays him when he casts his daughter out of the tribe for a perceived betrayal. The wounds have cut him to the very soul and the actors conveys it only through his amazing face. I wish I could see more films from this wonderful actor! When he makes a film, he inevitably steals every scene he is in.
The rest of the cast — Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer and the dastardly David Thewlis — do great work, simply adding to the film’s magnificence, but not surpassing the three key actors, likely by design of the director.
The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is breathtaking in its raw beauty. He is an eight-time Academy Award nominee for Cinematography and won in three consecutive years for Gravity (2013), Birdman (2014) and his greatest work The Revenant (2015) in which he again brought early forests to life for the narrative. Among his other acclaimed work are Sleepy Hollow (1999), Children of Men (2006), and Malick’s own The Tree of Life (2011). He was nominated for The New World and deserved to be. Like Toland, Stararo, and Zsigmond before him, he is a true genius with a camera in his hands, easily among the finest to ever shoot a film. His work on The New World feels teeming with energy and life and was utter perfection.
The film was well reviewed when it opened, but audiences did not respond well to it. I think they expected a thunder and lightning sort of action film. Ironically, it is so much more than that, making it less attractive to the masses it seemed. Making a film that explores humanity is far more difficult than making a superhero romp. Such a shame. The New World is a rarity in modern cinema, an absolute work of art.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.