Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 6, 2008)
Wow – that Terrence Malick’s on a roll! While it took 20 years before he directed a follow-up to 1978’s Days of Heaven, Malick cranked out 2005’s The New World a mere seven years after the release of 1998’s The Thin Red Line. Amazingly, Malick has another film due in 2009. Three films over 11 years? The man must be exhausted!
End of sarcasm mode. World offers Malick’s take on the oft-reiterated legend of Pocahontas and John Smith. Set in 1607, a group of British colonists led by Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) arrives in Virginia. There they set up camp and mingle with the “naturals”. Newport tries to make these interactions peaceful and productive, though tensions inevitably emerge between the two cultures.
This means the natives lose trust in the British, so the colonists need to find other trading partners to survive. They hear of a “king” not far away, and disgraced Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) gets the potentially hazardous mission to find him. In the meantime, Newport heads back to England to retrieve additional supplies and leaves others in charge of the camp.
While on his mission, the natives capture Smith and Chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg) orders him executed. At the last second, however, Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) steps in to save his life. Powhatan permits this reprieve to stand. From there Pocahontas and Smith get to know each other better and fall in love.
Alas, all doesn’t remain all peachy. The Indians remain wary of the settlers, so they eventually send Smith back to the camp and order him to take the others back home. He finds the British in a bad way and takes over leadership. This doesn’t improve the situation, however, and matters don’t get better until Pocahontas comes with supplies to relieve the hunger and disease of the colonists.
The rest of the movie examines the Pocahontas/Smith relationship, though it gradually emphasizes her tale more than his. We watch the path she takes away from her tribe and into British society. This also leads her to a relationship with John Rolfe (Christian Bale) as the film follows the life of Pocahontas.
To put it mildly, I wasn’t exactly excited to see World. I disliked the turgid and ponderous Thin Red Line and feared that World would be more of the same. I don’t know if I could take more than two hours of dreamy nothingness again.
Happily, World provides a much more satisfying experience. I wouldn’t call it flawless, but it usually works well. To be sure, the romance of this tale fits Malick’s dreamy style much better than does the battle setting of Line. In that flick, it felt odd to see all these absurdly philosophical GIs, but the same sort of thoughtfulness makes a lot more sense here.
I will admit I could have lived without all the voiceover found here. We often here Smith and Pocahontas verbalize their romantic thoughts. I don’t think these bits are necessary. They’d play better in silence, as the movie easily could let the actors’ motions and gestures do the talking for them. Frankly, the awkward voiceover lines thrust upon the actors create the flick’s most tedious moments. They spell out emotions that don’t require that form of detail.
Those quibbles aside, World forms a satisfying mix of fact and fiction as the basis of its romance. More than most cinematic explorations of the Pocahontas legend, this one gets its facts correct. Actually, it appears that the only substantial liberties it takes come from the love affair between Smith and Pocahontas. History opines that they had a friendship but nothing more than that.
As with virtually all versions of the story, World makes Pocahontas older than she really was – at least at first. The real Pocahontas was about 12 in 1607, whereas Kilcher was 15 when they made the movie. Of course, this means she also plays older than her years for parts of the movie – it progresses through 1617 – but it still leaves the wrong impression of the initial age of Pocahontas. At least the flick doesn’t portray Pocahontas as the super babe of the Disney flick.
As far as I can tell, World gets the basic facts correct and only really stretches in regard to the romantic elements. That doesn’t bother me. The film doesn’t push itself as perfectly factual, and it handles the love affair in a natural, impressive manner. This isn’t a documentary, so perfect adherence to the facts isn’t necessary. I remain impressed that the filmmakers attempted to get so much of the other parts correct.
World acts as a nice counter to the usual thrust of this sort of movie. Again, I hearken back to the Disney Pocahontas and its political correctness. It presents idiotic, greedy white men and virtually flawless Indians. World shows good and bad on both sides as it refuses to endorse one above the other. I like that balance and think it feels refreshing.
(For the record, please don’t take my comments about Disney’s Pocahontas to mean I dislike the film. I actually find it to offer a pretty entertaining piece of work. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand its flaws, however.)
As always, Malick creates an unusual attractive film. He really paints with the cinematic canvas, and unlike the setting of Line, the loveliness of this flick’s visuals makes sense. From start to finish, he creates a gorgeous picture that enhances the dreamy romance of the story.
The New World does nothing to revolutionize cinema. Its love story is fairly standard stuff, and its telling of the Pocahontas legend sticks with the known facts for the most part. Nonetheless, Malick manages to package all of this into something lovely and engaging.
Note that this DVD offers an “Extended Cut” of New World that runs a full 37 minutes longer than the theatrical edition. Since it’s not credited as a “Director’s Cut”, it’s unclear if Malick had involvement in the creation of this cut.
I only saw World once, so I’m not familiar enough with it to discuss variations between the two versions. I’d say the Extended Cut gives the story a little more breathing room, though maybe a little too much breathing room. In my original review, I mentioned that unlike the usual long-winded Malick epic, the theatrical World might’ve been a bit too short and tight; it left secondary characters out in the cold.
Again, I can’t make direct comparisons between the two films, but I think the extended World still suffers from the same issue. It’s longer but I don’t believe it expands the supporting roles in a particularly good manner. I get the feeling it goes with more of Malick’s trademark dreamy photography and doesn’t give us a whole lot additional story material.
I’m sure someone more familiar with the theatrical cut will be able to compare them and correct me, and I welcome that. Right now I’m going with my general impressions of the Extended Cut and which version I prefer. I’d say that I like the original theatrical version best. Yes, it might’ve been a little too short, but I like that tight sense of momentum more than this one’s looser take on the subject.
Of course, I expect Malick fans will be happy to get the additional footage. If you dig Malick, then you clearly enjoy his standard approach to narrative that espouses feel over plot. If that’s the case, I believe you’ll prefer the longer World. Personally, I like both, but I think the tighter cut works best.