The New World’s old problems

Like his three other gorgeous films, Terrence Malick's epic telling of the founding of the Jamestown colony is hollow

THE NEW WORLD written and directed by Terrence Malick, with Colin Farrell, Q’Orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale and Christopher Plummer. 135 minutes. Subtitled. A New Line/Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (January 20). Rating: NNN

Director Terrence Malick is famous for a number of reasons. His films are exquisitely beautiful, even though he uses a different cinematographer every time out. He’s decidedly unprolific, having made Days Of Heaven and Badlands in the 70s, The Thin Red Line in 1998 and now The New World.

He likes to tinker with his work until the last possible moment and beyond. When Malick was making Days Of Heaven, Richard Brooks asked to see some footage of Richard Gere when he was considering casting him for Looking For Mr. Goodbar. He did cast Gere, shot the film and premiered it in January of 1977. Days Of Heaven didn’t premiere until September 1978. Malick has never been quick to let his films go.

Malick was not only cutting The New World until the last minute, but he was also still editing it after it opened in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day so it would qualify for the Oscars and the various critics’ awards. It won none of the latter. Perhaps the critical ecstasy provoked by previous Malick films is no longer a dependable response.

Alliance Atlantis actually screened both versions in Toronto, the first theatrical cut in order to facilitate interviews, then the new theatrical cut, which is 15 minutes shorter.

Malick’s a guy who makes beautiful images, but he can’t tell a story, and he butchered one of my favourite books when he adapted James Jones’s great second world war novel, The Thin Red Line.

The New World is about the founding of the Jamestown colony in Virginia in 1607. That is to say, it’s about the near mythological encounter between Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the native princess Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher). The name “Pocahontas” is never spoken in the film, which is rather coy.

As the introductory passage to Wagner’s Das Rheingold plays, the lives of the locals unfold in stunning natural settings. (Unusually, the film was actually shot in Virginia.) Then three tall ships arrive and disgorge their crews, a gaggle of scruffy, spotty-looking white men looking for a paradise to despoil. The music gives the game away: the white men are Alberich, the hideous dwarf, come to steal the Rhinemaidens’ gold.

Malick’s recut mostly affects the film’s first hour. There are now far fewer long shots of white men wandering about, flummoxed by the endless emptiness of the landscape. If the recut was in fact director-inspired rather than a studio-ordered, it’s easy to see why Malick got impatient. He realized that The New World’s subject is the encounter between two cultures, so let’s get to it.

There’s a lot of hand-held camera work in the first version, and long stretches without a single match cut. It’s all jump cuts, with repetitions and overlaps to create the off-kilter rhythm of the first hour, but this is not true of what’s now the first 45 minutes or so.

Now the jump cuts start once Smith starts up the river to meet Powhatan (the fine Canadian actor August Schellenberg), a startling shift in style.

These stunning images of the natural world are by the great Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also shot Ali for Michael Mann, Y Tu Mamá También for Alfonso Cuarón and, of all things, The Cat In The Hat.

As is too often the case with Malick, the “story” is so hollowed out that in the long run we’re ravished by the cinematography and abandoned by the writing. There are three voice-overs, by Smith, Pocahontas and John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who saves Pocahontas from her despair. This is an improvement over The Thin Red Line, in which virtually every character has a voice-over, all of which sound like the ruminations of particularly damp second-year philosophy majors.

By declining to actually impinge on our thoughts, Malick leaves us free to make bizarre associations and wonder exactly how he got from D to N without apparently hitting any of the intervening letters. But we also realize, as the White Man descends on the locals and drives them out, burning their village, that Malick is drawing a direct line from the landing of the English in Virginia to My Lai.

He’s still fighting Vietnam, apparently unaware that there are newer battles to fight.

And, unfair as it may be, white people aren’t giving the Americas back to the original inhabitants. Move on, or come up with a new lesson.

Shortening The New World doesn’t solve its problems – it just leaves fewer beautiful images on display. This is a marginally 3N film, but it is as beautiful as anything you’ll see in a theatre this year, and, if you appreciate cinematography, the big screen is the way to go.

I don’t care how big your home theatre is – watching this on television will diminish it.

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