English settlers land in what will become Virginia, meeting the "Naturals", the Indian tribe who lives in the area. Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) stops the planned hanging of Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), asking him to lead an expedition to the north, to meet the indigenous tribe's leader. Smith soon meets Pocahontas (newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher) and they are each intrigued by the strangeness of the other. Returning to the settlement, Smith finds his fellow settlers are living in squalor and almost starving. Taking charge, he manages to help them survive the winter, along with a timely delivery of game and fowl by Pocahontas. Soon, they are under attack and they decide to bring the Indian princess there to live. As Pocahontas acclimates to her new life, Smith balances his desire for her with his desire to explore the New World.
Terrence Malick's "The New World", his first film since "The Thin Red Line" in 1998, is certainly a beautiful film to watch, perhaps the most beautiful of the year. But as I watched the painterly compositions, I realized that even though his films are beautiful, they suffer from similar problems.
Malick is one of a handful of directors who seem to compose every single frame of film as though it is a painted canvas. Composition, color, depth of field, everything in just about every scene is visually stunning, even when the settlers are living in squalor. Some of the shots brought to mind the work of Frederick Remington and his studies of Native Americans. Given the amount of time Malick takes to make a new film, it is clear he is more interested in creating art.
During the first hour of "World", Smith and Pocahontas fall in love. It is interesting to watch Farrell and Kilcher portray this without words, at least words the other can understand. Each stares into the other's eyes as they walk in circles in a field. Or they might be walking together, Kilcher tracing the exposed muscles in Farrell's chest, as he watches her in rapt appreciation. As this continues, there becomes a noted lack of entrance into their relationship. Yes, we get the attraction of the new, the physical attraction. But unless we understand their thoughts, what is going on in their heads, we can't become emotionally invested in their relationship.
Malick solves this problem in two ways. The first is with voice over narration. As Smith and Pocahontas are engaged in their mating dance, Farrell and Kilcher provide voice over, presumably their character's thoughts. But their narration is fairly esoteric, much like the characters are thinking love poetry they can't express verbally to each other. This adds to the lyrical nature of the film, almost creating a visual poem. It is intriguing to watch this, for about 30 minutes, and then you begin to hope for and expect more of a dramatic arch to the story.
The second solution to the communication problem occurs when Pocahontas begins to learn English. Soon, she is very fluent, yet we still get the narrative love poems. They never seem to stop. And they are always accompanied by people staring at one another, or walking through a beautiful field. It becomes more than a little monotonous. It is like going to a museum and viewing an overly large collection of landscapes painted in the same style. They may be pretty, but after 20 or so, it becomes difficult to tell them apart.
"World" depicts the founding of the first settlement in Virginia, the relationship between Pocahontas and Smith and later her relationship with John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the relationship between the settlers and the Naturals, and more. Stuff happens. So why does the film feel so inert? A significant portion of screen time is devoted to characters staring at each other, as they circle one another, gazing into each other's eyes as they prance around in a stream, or their hands gliding across the other's flesh, as the voiceover attempts to explain their burgeoning love.
"World" is based on actual events in history, but Malick makes a wrong turn in the last 45 minutes. I don't care if it actually happened or not, we don't need to see Pocahontas travel back to England with Rolfe. Again, the scenes are beautiful to watch. And I understand why Malick wanted to include this. We have seen Smith's New World, now we must see Pocahontas' New World as well. The problem is Pocahontas has become so integrated into the lives of the settlers her discovery of England doesn't have the power of Smith's. And it only makes the film that much longer.
Farrell and Kilcher are both good. Am impressive supporting cast (Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, David Thewlis, Wes Studi, Jonathan Pryce) clearly wanted the opportunity to work with the respected filmmaker.
Throughout, we don't get enough of a sense of what makes John Smith tick. Why did he leave his relationship with Pocahontas? Why the teary reunion in England filled with regrets? What is the point of these scenes? Malick devotes so much attention to the visual, that he doesn't seem concerned with answering these questions. Until we can understand, the drama will falter.
Malick's films are always beautiful to watch, but the dramatic elements receive less attention. Until Malick is able to more evenly distribute his attentions, his films will always be beautiful, but frustrating.