January 26, 2006

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FILM: The New World (PG-13)

by Amy Diaz

The Native Americans blow a perfectly good chance to chase the white men off the continent in the beautiful if overwrought The New World, the latest film by Terrence Malick.

Malick wrote and directed Days of Heaven in 1978 and then nothing for 20 years until The Thin Red Line. So, you know, at only seven years’ lag time between movies, he’s really picking up speed.

America is a land of greenery and opportunity in the early 1600s. Fertile farmland appears to be there for the taking, untouched by human hand. Untouched, that is, if you don’t count the original residents of the land, the “Naturals” as the English call the American natives, and count them they do not. The English arrive in Virginia looking dirty, tired and freaked out. They are even more freaked out when they first encounter the locals. The English see savages; the Indians see woefully unprepared people encroaching on their organized social structure and the lands they already inhabit. After a few stabs at making nice and trading, an itchy trigger finger puts the two civilizations at odds. The English, however, quickly realize that they need the Native Americans — all the food has gone bad and the English seem incapable of finding something to eat otherwise.

Up the river, then, goes Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell), a brave-ish if disobedient soldier. He winds up in the Native American city that is the seat of King Powhatan (August Schellenberg). Powhatan and most of his advisers say Smith should be sent to the big pub in the sky and quickly followed there by his fellow Englishmen. They are few, Powhatan says, best to kill them off before they are many.

Enter Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher). She throws herself on Smith, who she has seen a couple times before, and asks her father to spare his life. She’s sort of a daddy’s girl so he grants her wish and lets Smith hang out, learn a bit about the tribe and fall in love with his daughter (you could argue that this wasn’t the king’s plan but Pocahontas was a teenage girl, so, really what did he expect?).

When Smith returns to Jamestown, they are pretty skeptical about where he’s been all these months and unimpressed by his healthy appearance while they have been slowly starving (which is really their own damn useless faults for putting half-wits in charge and not getting off their butts and going to spear something). The Jamestown residents continue the difficult work of starving and whining about it throughout the winter until Pocahontas and friends show up with some food. At some point they also show up with some seeds and some know-how for getting stuff to grow. It’s this last part and the permanence that farming suggests that pisses off Powhatan, who was hoping he’d convinced Smith that it would be best for the English, longevity-wise, if they high-tailed it in the spring. He realizes that Pocahontas was the one who encouraged the English and casts her out. She eventually winds up in Jamestown, where she is given surprisingly good treatment as a native royal. Her fluttery heart, however, is set on becoming John Smith’s girl and, despite some hand holding and loving looks, he dumps her to continue his adventuring. This leads her to a more cautious romance with the widower John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and a life that is almost totally devoid of the Native American ways of her youth.

Full of gently soaring symphonic movements and glistening shots of the unspoiled land, The New World is beautiful, as the new world itself must have been. We get a sense that even explorers like Smith knew that the possibilities with this land were great and that man (Western European man, at least) had a chance to start society again, a better, fairer, society. In one of many flowery, breathless voiceovers, Smith even says something to this effect. His love for this new possibility is tied up in his attraction for the exotic beauty of Pocahontas. For her it is Smith who offers a glimpse at another world and, as with many a teenager, different is exciting enough to mask more practical matters (such as the future alienation of her people — ah, kids). In her voiceovers, she is also drunk with wonder and infatuation for this mysterious man.

That, you might think, is a lot of voiceovers. Yes, yes it is. I’d guess that a good half or more of the dialogue in The New World is voiceover. And, hey, interior monologue is fantastic but interior monologue about the many facets of love can get tiring. In fact all the loveliness of The New World begins to get a bit tiring after a while. We get the story of our nation as told through the eyes of a teenager with a crush, which is fitting I suppose but perhaps not as interesting over two and a half hours as some of the historical detail and action is.

Loveliness is not a bad place to start when looking at the earliest history of America — awe has always been a big selling point of this continent. But the movie more or less begins and ends with awe, making this potentially epic story feel a little thin.

B-

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