Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, Ben Chaplin, Jonathan Pryce, Wes Studi, Noah Taylor, David Thewlis, Irene Bedard
Written by: Terrence Malick
Directed by: Terrence Malick
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense battle sequences
Running Time: 135
Date: 12/25/2005
IMDB

The New World (2005)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Pocahontas Poetry

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Terrence Malick's fourth film rolls across the screen with undulating waves of tall grass and murky water that laps right up against the edge of your seat. No other director uses his natural environment in such a profoundly physical way. Nature permeates this film. It's everywhere, and it constantly establishes itself in relation to the characters, helping the characters relate to one another.

The characters, of course, are John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), who meet in1607 not long after English settlers arrive in Virginia. A favorite daughter of the Powhatan chief, Pocahontas saves the captured Smith's life, and the two form a unique bond. Newcomer Kilcher portrays the role with an exquisite mix of surprise and curiosity, embodying the character so fully that she may have emerged from a time machine.

As with The Thin Red Line (1998), Malick forgoes traditional plot in favor of pure sensation. Smith and Pocahontas (who is never called by that name) dance through little rituals for each other, teaching each other bits of language and culture, each lost in dazzled adoration for the other. The inquisitive attempts at friendship between the two tribes, the brutal battles, starvation and other points of the story occur as if afterthoughts or dreams.

The main point of The New World is the mixing and mingling of two cultures, each contributing to or taking from the other, and -- finally -- one engulfing another, in a deeply embedded need for order and control where none exists.

The New World can be maddeningly opaque, as when Malick uses his beloved, murmuring voice-over poetry readings. But considering the alternative -- Hollywood dialogue written to sound as if it were spoken in the 17th century -- this technique proves more than efficient. (A second viewing clears things considerably.)

Our story shifts in the final third to an inevitably tragic tone as Smith departs and John Rolfe (Christian Bale) enters the picture and marries Pocahontas. Baptized as "Rebecca," and strapped into tight English clothes, corsets and shoes, she learns to maneuver among the sculpted gardens of England. She meets the king and queen, as magnificent as her own chief once was.

To be sure, The New World is the only film in this safe, bland movie environment that gets anywhere close to grandiose or daring or foolish. It's a welcome act of artistic lunacy and a messy masterpiece that deserves a life well beyond the current awards season.

Note: When The New World screened for awards consideration in December of 2005, it was in a 150-minute cut. The final theatrical release now runs 135 minutes. I was unable to determine just what was cut out, though I was relieved to see that all my favorite moments were still intact. The only difference I noticed was that the current cut moves quite a bit more smoothly and quickly, and a small pacing problem has been cleared up.

DVD Details: New Line's 2006 DVD release comes with a lovely transfer that works surprisingly well on the small screen. It also includes a very good hour-long making-of featurette, filmed entirely on the set and without all the usual clips-n-talking heads. Disappointingly, the mysterious, rarely-photographed Malick does not appear in one second of the footage. (Or, if he did, I didn't recognize him.) If you missed this film in the theater, don't shy away from seeing it now.

Notes on the "Extended Cut":

In December of 2005, I saw the 150-minute cut of The New World, which was screened for my critics group for awards consideration. The film as a whole didn't quite sink in until I saw the 135-minute cut a month or so later. I'm not sure if the shorter cut played better for me, or if it took a second viewing to cement the idea that this was a true masterpiece. Now New Line has released an "extended cut," running 172 minutes. My guess is that this new cut has nothing to do with director Terrence Malick. For one thing, it's specifically called an "extended cut," and not a "director's cut." And there's no information on the disc or anywhere else explaining how this cut came about. Malick is secretive and reclusive, but I'm sure that if this were his director's cut, it would be called the director's cut.

The 172-minute cut plays with more thought toward narrative, with lots more explanation and more narration. Q'orianka Kilcher has more screen time, and her astonishing performance seems more fully rounded. (I look forward to what she does next, but even if she does nothing, she'll have this one extraordinary moment, much like Maria Falconetti's great, single performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc.) Just about every sequence plays a bit longer, with more literal detail in place. We also get title cards, dividing the movie into "chapters." We see more of Christopher Plummer and his plans for the new colony, more details of John Smith and his "imprisonment" in Pocahontas' camp, and more details of the courtship between "Rebecca" (Pocahontas's Anglo name) and John Rolfe (Christian Bale). Pocahontas swims nude during the opening moments (though it's probably a body double since we never see her face and since Kilcher was only 14 at the time).

I have a soft spot for the shortest version, which merely suggests the story and plays more like a poem or a dream, but I suspect that this, more literal, narrative version would have done better business and picked up more awards had it been released in theaters. But even in this long version, the images are still startling and beautiful, very definitely crafted with Malick's signature style, and it's still a masterpiece. All that's left is for some kind of clue as to which version, if any, is Malick's "final cut."

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