THE NEW WORLD: Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Produced by Sarah Green. Executive producers, William M. Mechanic, Toby Emmerich, Rolf Mittweg, Mark Ordesky and Trish Hofmann. Cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. Production design, Jack Fisk. Costume design, Jacqueline West. Film editors Richard Chew, Hank Corwin, Saar Klein and Mark Yoshikawa. Composer James Horner. Starring Colin Farrell, Q’Orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer and Christian Bale. With August Schellenberg, Wes Studi, David Thewlis, Yorick van Wageningen. Also Raoul Trujillo, Michael Greyeyes, Kalani Queypo, Ben Mendelsohn, Noah Taylor, Ben Chaplin, John Savage, Irene Bedard, Eddie Marsan and Myrton Running Wolf. New Line Cinema, 2005. PG-13. 135 minutes.
Many times I have been in awe of nature’s great works: the cathedral-like spires and great rivers of the Grand Canyon, the colorful hot springs of Yosemite, water’s fury at Niagara Falls, the dignity of giant sequoias and peace in a fern canyon. I’ve savored encirclement by fragrant woods and plants in upstate New York, desert Arizona and California gold country. I’ve been blessed by the tidal logic of North Carolina’s outer banks and the Texas Gulf Coast, where I grew up. I’ve lived among the dry, sacred mountains of New Mexico and in Colorado’s pink-granite high country. I’ve camped near Oregon’s clear rushing rivers, in Douglas fir forests, at shallow high-country lakes and rocky beaches, and I live in its great green valley. I imagine how this spectacular land looked when the first of my tribe arrived. Then I feel ashamed for the terrible things we have done, collectively, to the bountiful, natural paradise and its human and animal inhabitants entrusted to us.
The look and feel of Terrence Malick’s visual masterpiece, The New World, resonates because he re-imagines the moment of the meeting of cultures that took place in April of 1607. Three English sailing ships appeared, which had made a 3,000-mile journey across the sea. Malick pictures the Native Americans, or Naturals as they are called, as curious, alert and as interested in the sailors as the intruders are in them.
Tribal people had lived among these woods and waters for 15,000 years. Some English feared both the marshy tidewater land and its people, who lived in an agricultural, hunting and fishing community shaded by trees on the banks of the Chickahominy River. But of course, the English had no way of knowing the Naturals were part of a mature empire led by the powerful Algonquian chief, Powhatan (August Schellenberg).
As the Susan Constant approaches lands the explorers call the New World, we see an imprisoned John Smith (Colin Farrell) shackled below decks. He’s sentenced to die for insubordination but is pardoned by Capt. Newport (Christopher Plummer), who realizes Smith is too valuable to waste once they land.
An intense desire to understand the alien other permeates the initial encounter. The ship’s officers and armor-wearing, matchlock-musket toting guards face the dazzled Naturals, exotic and vulnerable-looking with their painted faces and naked chests. But they were warriors, makers of matakas, leaf-shaped swords hardened in seawater and fire, sharp enough to cut through bone. A Natural is shot dead within the first few minutes. After all, if this is the first Western, the rifle and pistol are its icons. Firepower gives the newcomers the momentary advantage, but knowing how to thrive in the new land gives the ancient people the superior edge.
The tale we know hinges on Smith the narrator and is taken directly from his and others’ writings as well. Smith is attracted to the Naturals and eventually to the Chief’s favorite child, his youngest daughter (Q’Orianka Kilcher). Her people call her Pocahontas, which means “playful one,” but she does not tell Smith nor later her husband, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), her real name. Lack of a common language doesn’t hinder Smith and the girl from learning to love. Silence between them is not empty but full. These idyllic scenes represent the heart and soul of Malick’s gorgeous film, which evokes the ephemeral elation of being one with the natural world. Malick also shows what becomes of those ill-adapted to the world of nature, their degradation into madness, cruelty and depression.
The New World is neither a polemic nor a cautionary tale. It is an elegant expression of the vital quality we call the human spirit or the soul. Its truth belongs to no nation, no tribe, but is found in the individual who arrives at such goodness through a fully lived life. This film is a poem to spirit, a symphony to soul and an elegy for our lost paradise.
The film is a first-class production — cinematography, editing, costumes, set design, historical accuracy, imaginative creativity and performances. Terrence Malick is a national treasure. His film is now playing at Cinemark. Very highest recommendations.