Monday, 6 June 2011

The Films of Terrence Malick: "The New World"

Note: This is a review of the Extended Cut of the film. 

The films of Terrence Malick, like those of Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian director, are more like visual poems than traditional narratives, though narrative structure still plays a factor in both directors' films. Malick's 2005 film The New World, which is a retelling of the Pocahontas legend, in particular, has to be approached in this fashion, as a poem, not a narrative. I also think the film requires a balance between being able to absorb it while also analyzing what Malick is presenting the audience, while at the same time not being too coldly analytical. If I sound like I'm writing an instructional manual for how to watch a movie, one from Malick or otherwise, I apologize, but I do feel it's important to know how to approach a work as challenging as The New World.

The film begins in 1607 in Virginia when ships as part of the Jamestown expedition have come to establish a colony. Before we are introduced to these English settlers, the film begins with a shot of a river, with a voiceover from a young woman talking to what can be perceived as Mother Nature, or Mother Earth: "Come spirit, help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother; we, your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you." This opening narration both establishes the trademark Malick voiceover, as well as the deeply spiritual nature of the film. The film is not just about a literal new world but also the connection the people have to an abstract spiritual world. The voiceover also subtly establishes Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) as someone who will ultimately become the main character of the film. Nevertheless, shortly after this introduction the audience is introduced to  Captain John Smith, who audiences will embrace as the main character, particualrly since he is played by Colin Farrell.

Bill Cody, of  the website Rope of Silicon, feels that Farrell is miscast as John Smith and that he stands out like a sore thumb. I can see where Cody is coming from but I think Farrell gives a fine performance, subtly suggesting admiration for Pocahontas yet also a reservation about having a relationship with her. While Farrell does stick out in comparison to the other actors, I think that's on purpose. While The New World does have a basis in historical fact, the film still has romanticized elements, such as the romance between Smith and Pocahontas. I believe Smith is supposed to be portrayed as a romantic and masculine figure, and Farrell fits that type of character. Moreover, I feel that Pochahontas stands out within her respective group as well. To my memory, we do not see many female native characters other than Pocahontas. I feel that Smith is probably more of an outsider than Pocahontas, particularly since at the beginning of the film Smith is to be hanged for mutiny, though pardoned by Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer), the leader of the expedition. Pocahontas is not an outsider in a negative sense but as Smith says in voiceover,

 All the children of the king were beautiful, but she, the youngest, was so exceedingly so that the sun  himself- though he saw her often - was surprised whenever she came out into his presence. Her father had a dozen wives, a hundred children, but she was his favorite. She exceeded the rest not only in feature and proportion but in wit and spirit too. All loved her.

Pocahontas trandscends the other natives, making her an outsider in a positive sense. Both Smith and Pocahontas are outsiders in their own way, which may be the factor that ultimately draws them together, coupled with  Smith leading a group to seek trade with the natives, which leads to his capture and eventual embrace of the natives.

Film critic Ty Burr has an interesting theory about the structure of the film, which is that the supposed romance between Smith and Pocahontas is a dream, Smith's dream in fact:

She [Pocahontas] falls in love with Smith, as adolescent girls do, and he falls in love with the idea of her, as a romantically inclined explorer might do...It's such a lovely dream, and, yes, it comes to look fairly silly to an outsider -- to Powhatan, to the other colonists, to the viewers in the audience. But a dream it is, and the use of Mozart's 23d Piano Concerto on the soundtrack alerts us to the fact that it's a European dream -- John Smith's dream.
It's a fascinating theory that emphasizes the contrast between the more romanticized elements of the film, which mostly include the romance between Smith and Pocahontas and the fact based elements such as Pocahontas' journey to England and her marriage to English settler John Rolfe, played by Christian Bale in the film. To my memory, these passages with Smith and Pocahontas are more dream like than the the passages with the English settlers. It's actually like waking up from a dream when Smith returns to the settlers and Smith, in voiceover, addresses these experiences as a dream: 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." One problem with this theory has to do with Pocahontas' reaction to learning that Smith has is alive, despite being told he had drowned, leading her to tell her husband Rolfe that she is already married, implying that she loves Smith, which leads me to believe to that this romance is real. There is also the moment in the snow between Pocahontas and Smith which implies a real romance of sorts had happened.

The dream interpretation, whether accepted or not, addresses the pervading tone of the film, which is that of a dream, one that captures a particular time and place, maybe not exactly how it felt, but something that feels truer than the ultimate reality. Malick supposedly wrote this script in the seventies and It and it can be seen as his dream, his connection to the past. Malick's films are all period pieces; Badlands, which I haven't seen takes place in 1959, Days of Heaven (1978) is set during the depression, and The Thin Red Line (1998) takes place during WWII. His latest, The Tree of Life (2011) takes place in the 1950s but I believe the Sean Penn sequences are supposed to be set in present day. Malick clearly wants to find elements of the American past that are relevent today.

The voiceovers from Smith, Pocahontas, and Rolfe, rather than the characters just narrating the events of the story, seem exist outside the character's bodies and even outside of time, narrating to the audience from the future. The voiceovers also emphasize the human connection to nature, which is an important theme in this film, as in Malick's other films as well.

The film is also about the disconnect between world, how that disconnect can result in a connection created by love. Sadly, this love is  ultimately too precious to last. I view this as the reason behind the separation of Smith and Pocahontas as well as Pocahontas death at the end of the film. It's interesting that Pocahontas is never referred to by name except when she becomes Rebecca Rolfe. The last shot of the film, as pointed out by editor and critic Jim Emerson, is that of the tree of life, hinting at Malick's future film as well as the concept of Pocahontas finally finding her name after death.

Whether misfire or Masterpiece, and individual critics are divided, The New World should be approached openmindedly, without pretention or prejudice. After seeing the film twice, once with the 135 minute theatrical cut and once with the 172 minute extended cut, which I take is the final cut though with Malick one can't be sure, I still feel like I'll need to revisit over my life to write more completely on it. As of now, I think this is a gorgeous film, one, like a great poem, that whether analyzed or simply absorbed, provides a deeply rewarding experience.   

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