The skies surrounding Jamestown in “The New World” are almost invariably flat and colorless, a condition that unfortunately also describes the storytelling and dramatis personae in Terrence Malick’s new picture. While the tale of first contact between Englishmen and the “naturals,” as the Brits felicitously refer to the Native Americans, might seem to play to the strengths of the meticulous and unhurried director, Malick’s exalted visuals and isolated metaphysical epiphanies are ill-supported by a muddled, lurching narrative, resulting in a sprawling, unfocused account of an epochal historical moment. The support of Malick loyalists notwithstanding, New Line will have trouble generating more than a modest commercial response.
“The New World” is just Malick’s fourth film in a career that began 32 years ago with “Badlands.” No one else’s films look like his, and, Disney to the side, no filmmaker has ever chosen to take a serious look at the initial English incursion onto American soil, a period invariably encrusted by starch and must in history books.
Malick brings palpably alive the physical manifestations of the British presence in Virginia, beginning in 1607. Stirringly beginning with the opening strains of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” written to evoke a river’s swirling and the emanation of life from it, the film presents without preamble the arrival of three British ships like a cascading wave upon the shore.
Without a clue what to expect, the Englishmen remain cautiously reserved as the naturals scamper about, hoot, talk and even sniff and touch them before retreating back into the sylvan wilds. Sequence has a freshly charged, even humorous aspect that holds considerable promise.
White contingent is led by Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) who, as he strides upon the land, summarily releases Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) from his death sentence (for unexplained “mutinous remarks”) and appoints him to lead an expedition to the natives’ compound. Along the way, the other men are killed while Smith is captured, only to spared at the last minute by Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), the teenage daughter of the Powhatan tribal king (August Schellenberg).
The months that follow constitute the heart of the matter for Malick. In each of his films, but especially in “Days of Heaven” and the early section of “The Thin Red Line,” the director has excelled at evoking nature in its pure state, from the sensual swaying of grass and wheat in the former to the intoxicating qualities of the tropics in the latter. Here, there is an Adam-and-Eve-like quality to the playful, sensual but not precisely carnal frolicking of Pocahontas (Kilcher was 14 when pic was shot) and the Englishman twice her age who falls under the spell of a culture so very different from his own.
Although the storyline has been fictionalized, at least in regard to the romance between the leading characters, the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to achieve authenticity on the production side. Lensing along the Chickahominy River very close to the original Jamestown settlement, Malick, production designer Jack Fisk, costume designer Jacqueline West and all other hands have fashioned a convincing version of indigenous American life 400 years ago that has a gratifyingly hand-tooled feel. When Fort James is first seen, its ugliness truly resembles a scar upon the land.
But the film’s impact begins and, disappointingly, ends with these tactile, impressionistic effects. Minimalizing dialogue in favor of mostly unilluminating voice-over narration from Smith, Pocahontas and, later, newly arrived Englishman John Rolfe, screenwriter Malick (who first penned the script 25 years ago) can’t get inside the heads of any of his characters and fails to establish a connection for the audience.
While Kilcher’s girl/woman charm, poised naivete and intriguing unfamiliarity lend Pocahontas a considerable fascination, Smith remains grievously underwritten for a leading role. One hasn’t a clue what drives him, what he might have left behind in England, whether or not he’s a trustworthy character (or narrator) with a good heart. Under the circumstances, Farrell can’t do much more than interact in an agreeably spontaneous way with his leading lady. Thesps in lesser roles register hardly at all.
Pocahontas is said to have been one of many children of the king, but there is no attempt to delineate the native group’s family or power structure, or this tribe’s relationship with its neighbors. Explicit exposition may not be Malick’s thing, but the lack of moorings has the predictable effect of leaving the viewer adrift in what shapes up as the director’s most literal, albeit not overly didactic, depiction of the despoiling of Eden.
Before long, pic falls into an ill-formed midsection marked by muddled action, abrupt transitions and a lulling torpor. With Newport having sailed back to England for more supplies and manpower, the English settlement languishes but revives upon Smith’s return. Once Powhatan figures out that the Brits plan to stay, he prepares for battle with them. He’s foiled, however, by his favorite daughter, who warns Smith, leading to her exile from the tribe and adoption by the English.
Just as Smith’s embrace of native ways made for unusual moments, so does Pocahontas’ slow Anglicanization stir modest interest, although in a sadder way, with her natural manner literally constricted by the European clothes she wears. Told Smith is dead, she at lengthmarries tobacco grower Rolfe (Christian Bale), who later takes her to his homeland.
This development momentarily proves stimulating, as Malick is wonderfully adept at showing England from an innocent’s point of view, with its dark wet stone and formal gardens contrasting starkly with the new world’s lush land and untamed foliage.
Along with the dramatic shortcomings, pic surprisingly disappoints somewhat on the visual side as well. To be sure, Malick and ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have come up with some arresting, original and mobile images. But the combination of the overwhelmingly dull skies with the decision to film entirely without electric lights serves to drain a lot of the color and interest from the frames, especially compared to what the director achieved in “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.”
In the end, there is also a feeling of pictorial repetition of what Malick has done before, particularly in the reliance on nature shots; more than once, one is made to recall the old saw about how, if a scene isn’t cutting together, you cut to a seagull flying overhead. With this and the heavy narration, one senses a certain artistic treading water, the opposite of what the churning waterborne motifs of “Das Rheingold” are meant to suggest.
The repeated Wagner excerpt remains the dominant musical signpost of the film, much as the Saint-Saens “Carnival of the Animals” extract was for “Days of Heaven.” Among other pre-existing music, Mozart plays a leading role, and James Horner’s original contributions to the score are discreet and dramatic.