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The New World

Terrence Malick emerged as one of the most striking American directors of the 1970s with the lyrical, visually stunning dramas Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). Following this bold start to his career, Malick slipped into obscurity for the next 20 years before reemerging to join in on the World War II jubilee filmathon of the 1990s with the excruciatingly pretentious (and lyrical, and visually stunning) The Thin Red Line (1998) — a movie which caused many to hope Malick might slip back into obscurity for another couple of decades. But it took Malick just seven years to return to the screen with the 2005 quasi-historical tone poem, The New World. Set in the early 17th century, The New World explores, in Malick's carefully precious, elegiac way, the exchange of cultures that transpired when English settlers sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to establish new colonies in the unexplored Americas, introducing themselves to a fertile new geography and the natives of this land to an uncompromising new way of life. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), a soldier hired to travel with the explorers, arrives in shackles but is granted a fresh start by Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer), fueling Smith's romanticization of this new land as a paradise of freedom and individual achievement. However, despite good intentions, the settlers quickly run afoul of "the naturals" — the powerful Powhatan tribe, who express a decidedly right-wing attitude toward immigration. Smith is captured, but his life is spared by the intervention of Chief Powhatan's enigmatic daughter (Q'Orianka Kilcher, playing the historical figure known as Pocahontas, although she isn't so named until the final credits). Smith stays with the Powhatan, learning their ways and cultivating a deep romance with the young "Indian Princess," but the Powhatan finally send him back to his fort, expecting him to lead the settlers home in the spring. Smith returns to find Jamestown a paragon of medieval squalor, ravaged by disease and starvation, and once he is named "President" he instills a new sense of discipline and purpose in his fellow settlers, but they are still dependent on The Princess' charity to survive the winter. When it becomes clear to the Powhatan that the English have no intention of leaving, they declare war on the settlers and exile The Princess. Smith can't fathom her despoiling assimilation into his community as a new wave of settlers arrives — including a matron for The Princess who dresses her in English clothing and names her Rebecca — and leaves. Rebecca, hearing false news of Smith's death, crawls in the dirt and dunks her face in puddles (which is apparently how teenagers expressed depression before they began writing bad poetry). She stalks the fort like a crazy homeless person until she catches the eye of a kind tobacco farmer, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who convinces her to marry him and bear a child. When news of the "tamed Indian Princess" reaches England, Rolfe and Rebecca are invited to London for an audience with the King and Queen.

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The New World is 100% Terrence Malick with its achingly beautiful photography of nature, quietly detailed soundscape, relentless free-verse voiceovers ("If only I could go down that river. To love her in the wild, forget the name of Smith. I should tell her. Tell her what? It was just a dream. I am now awake."), and recurring themes (the relationship between aboriginal peoples and nature, the displacement of people in strange environments, and the restrained depiction of sexual relationships with young girls). The New World is, historically, largely an act of emotional invention, not only in small factual details, but moreso in its realization of the unsubstantiated affair between Smith and Pocahontas, the latter of whom was illiterate and left no record of the interior life herein assigned to her. But Kilcher is a compelling and mature young actress (she was 14 during filming) and provides The New World with a solid anchor, despite its sometimes precarious artifice. Farrell and Bale are also superb in carrying long stretches of a film that features very little dialogue, even if Farrell's Smith is a bit too mopey, introverted and taciturn to be believed as a noteworthy explorer. As usual with Malick, the cinematography (by Emmanuel Lubezki) is impeccable, and the cast is filled with thankless, barely noticeable turns by better actors than their bit parts deserve — in this case, Wes Studi, David Thewlis, John Savage, Noah Taylor and Ben Chaplin. New Line presents The New World on DVD in a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Included is the hour-long documentary Making The New World, as well as theatrical trailers. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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