The good news about cult director Terrence Malick’s epic-length film about the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607–and the romance between settler John Smith and Indian maiden Pocahontas that supposedly helped insure its survival–is that it’s not the staid, didactic pageant so many movies about similar subjects have been. (Of course, most of them–with the exception of Disney’s 1995 cartoon–have concentrated on the Puritan Plymouth settlement of thirteen years later rather than the Jamestown one.) The bad news is that it’s pretty much a mess–a woozy, sometimes inspired but mostly infuriating piece far more interested in conveying mood than information. Most viewers will probably find it impenetrable, and a crushing bore to boot.
Of course, no one familiar with Malick’s highly personal and idiosyncratic style would expect “The New World” to be a conventional, narrative-driven film that lays out the factual material as it might be in a high-school textbook. His goal is to portray, in an intensely visual, almost hallucinatory fashion, the clash of cultures represented by the English encounter with the Powhatan tribe of the Tidewater region. The way he’s chosen to do this is in effect to make his picture almost as strange and off-putting an experience for the audience as the historical event must have been for both sets of participants. So he keeps us continuously at sea even after the English flotilla has landed, indulging in reams of swooning outdoor footage in which characters stumble about, aimless and mostly uncomprehending, with Colin Farrell’s Smith in particular mumbling about the promise of a new liberated life as he does so. Virtually no attention is given to explaining what’s happening or why, and individual sequences are linked together only in the most perfunctory manner. To increase the oddity, Malick adds repetitive swaths of classical music that make the mood even more peculiar. (Multiple appearances of the Vorspiel to Wagner’s “Das Reingold” are outnumbered by snatches from the second movement of Mozart’s twenty-third piano concerto–and though the music is lovely, it’s doubtful its use here will generate the same degree of popular affection that “Elvira Madigen” brought to the second movement of the twenty-first. By contrast the newly-struck score by James Horner doesn’t make much of an impression.) The problem with all this is that the film is so successful at alienating us from the world it creates that it’s pretty much impossible for it to connect with us on either a visceral or a cerebral level.
Of course even though Malick’s picture is more devoted to atmosphere and philosophical noodling than logical coherence, it must provide at least a skeletal narrative framework. The three British ships under the command of Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer, getting more work than ever in his old age and effortlessly dominating the screen) land on the American shore to the amazement of the Indians presided over by Chief Wahunsomacock (August Schellenberg), who are both fascinated and frightened. Smith, who’s been imprisoned during the voyage for otherwise unexplained mutinous activity and scheduled to be hanged, is freed by Newport to lead an expedition to make contact with “the Naturals” while Newport returns to England for provisions and additional manpower. His companions are killed along the way but Smith himself is saved by the Chief’s youngest, and favorite, daughter Pocahantas (Q’orianka Kilcher), and over the next weeks they frolic in the woods and fall in love, though the much older Smith has misgivings. (He’s deeply conflicted about everything, it seems, though once again no background is provided to explain his glum mood.) Finally he returns to the now-built Fort Jamestown, only to find it in the throes of illness and famine and under the stern rule of a martinet named Wingfield (an unimpressive David Thewlis). That soon changes as Smith takes over, however, and with help from the Indians–under urging from Pocahontas, it would seem–and the return of Newport, matters stabilize. This apparently discomfits the Indians, who had hoped the whites would be only temporary guests, and they plan an assault on the settlement which the maiden helps the newcomers resist–an act that earns her exile from the tribe. Now it is her turn to learn the ways of a strange and foreign culture as she takes up residence in the fort, and when Smith is reported dead on another expedition she catches the eye of a second Englishman, the honest and kindly John Rolfe (Christian Bale), whom she weds. After a time the couple travel to England to visit King James, where she is confronted with a culture even more curious to her than the settlement had been, and Smith, not dead after all, makes a reappearance. Though romantic embers are rekindled between them, Pocahontas is true to her vows; but the return trip by the Rolfes to Jamestown proves a tragic one.
This scenario might sound a perfectly reasonable narrative when paraphrased as it is here, but though its contours are clear enough in the film, it’s muddled as a result of Malick’s lack of concern for proper transitions, clear motivations and ordinary exposition. Nor does his approach help his cast. Kilcher certainly brings an engaging exuberance to Pocahontas in the film’s initial stages and a grave solemnity to the later reels, but the character never escapes opacity. The same is true of Smith, whom Farrell struggles to bring to life in the absence of any background that might give his usually sullen ruminations any true weight; as a result the almost fatalistically grim fellow doesn’t develop the stature he needs to move us. (About the best thing one can say of Farrell here is that at least he’s free of the dreadful blond wig he had to wear in “Alexander.”) Plummer and Bale go through their paces with thorough professionalism, but not much is asked of them, and they deliver accordingly; Thewlis, on the other hand, tries to provide too much and winds up almost as grotesque as the performers who have to speak directly into the camera, half-crazed, during the time of hardship in the camp–coming across like living gargoyles in the process. Schellenberg and Wes Studi strike impressive poses as tribal leaders, but one never is challenged to see beneath the surface with them, either. Technically “The New World” is all over the place. At times the lensing by Emmanuel Lubezki is striking, but too often the images seem rather dull and washed-out, and the frequently jerky hand-held camerawork becomes annoying. Jack Fisk’s production design has an authentic feel, both in the rustic simplicity of the American sequences (with an imposing Indian village) and in the busier, more ornate English scenes. The sound recording, however, seems to come and go, with Smith’s muted muttering during his wanderings often difficult to catch.
There will no doubt be those who will find Malick’s film captivating, even revelatory; but they’re likely to be a small minority. They’ll no doubt emphasize its poetic quality. But it’s important to remember that there’s good poetry and bad poetry. “The New World” falls into the latter category.