Terrence Malick's The New World is a strange mixture of mud and poetry. The writer-director scores with the beginning and end, both in silence (with crickets). Often as it's been done, there's never been a ship-arriving-to-shore-aswarm-with-natives sequence that has had quite this hushed magic and real-ness. We look over the naked shoulders of the "naturals," as the Anglos interestingly denominate them, while they in turn look out with awe and excitement at the boats on the water. Ah if we could only cherish the terrible immanence of this historical moment - the 1607 arrival of what's to become "the first permanent English settlement in America" -- for two hours and a half. But of course that wouldn't work. Though the movie has longeurs , they're not that extreme. If we can see past the mannerisms, Malick is the man to take us to the new world. The moods he creates are incomprehensible enough to be "real." But he doesn't know quite what to do with us once he's got us there. Despite much good atmosphere and ravishing images, what follows the magical opening turns out to be disappointingly flimsy and mundane.
Malick is a strange mixture himself, a Hollywood heavy who's made hardly any movies, and an art film pretender who increasingly uses standard matinee idol types. With Christopher Plummer and David Thewlis and veteran Native American actors like Wes Studi and August Schellenberg (Powhatan) to back them up and the appealing Pacific Islander-looking newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher (who's actually half Swiss and half Peruvian Indian) as Pocahontas, we're given Colin Farrell and Christian Bale. And that's who we have to look at and believe they're Captain John Smith and John Rolfe, respectively. It's debatable if any sense of historical authenticity can survive all the great big close-ups we get of Farrell's and Bale's soulful and sweet faces, respectively. The magic is broken. You just know you're watching a movie.
So the ships arrive, Christopher Plummer as Captain Christopher Newport in charge, Captain John Smith (Farrell) brought along in chains for insubordination, then released benevolently by Newport to have a chance at a new start in the new land. When Newport later leaves, Smith takes over.
In these early scenes we already get glimpses of Pocahantas, and it isn't long before she and Captain John Smith meet and fall in love. In the movie, what historians say was really more like a father-daughter relationship (the princess was only twelve, not even Q'Orianka's age, fourteen) is thrown back to the myth of a romance, and a lot of screen time is devoted to mooning at each other and rubbing noses between Q'Orianka and Colin, who uses a full-on Irish accent here, which isn't necessarily so inauthentic: the way the English used to talk sounded like Irish, only none of the other Englishmen talk that way, being English. Anyway the great love grows, platonically.
After getting kidnapped on a mission to find the local king, Smith has been growing fat and fit among the "naturals" and, it turns out, teaching Pocahontas to speak perfect English (but without the Irish accent), when he goes back to the colony and discovers that they're starving. He returns to a vicious slum, and a knot of Dickensian boys talking over each other fearfully and saying strange things, apparently crazed by hunger. Captain Wingfield (Thewlis) has taken over and rules despotically; but he's quickly deposed and Smith put in charge.
The Indian males are all fierce iron men in war paint at all times, so you wonder why Smith's hushed voiceovers go on about how peaceful and free and without guile or anger or suspicion they turn out to be, once you get to know them. Maybe teaching Pocahontas English has kept Smith from learning enough of the Indians' language to know what they're talking about - who knows? Malick cares about poetry, not logic. We know from a subtitled speech that King Powhatan suspects the white men are going to stay and multiply and sees this as a terrible threat he must deal with. But Smith remains, as depicted here, a believer in the noble savage -- just as he is a believer in the "New Land's" leading to equality and plenty and justice for all settlers.
The voiceovers are a Malick mannerism already familiar from The Thin Red Line. Occasionally they reveal where the action onscreen is tending, but mostly they pose general questions about life and love worthy of some teenager's diary, and they often risk sounding fatuous. They also may confuse the average viewer, since they're not conventional narration but go off on their own tangents at the most unexpected moments. This unpredictablity is what appeals about Malick's filmmaking, but also what's maddening about it sometimes. Using many such voiceover voices might have helped achieve the failed promise of a portrait of the whole "New World" experience, the fate of the colony and the colonists, but that of course would be even more confusing for the average viewer. It is, in The Thin Red Line, where several voices are so similar you lose track of who's talking.
Eventually anyway we realize this is just a love story. It's not so much an epic one as a failed one: Pocahontas is robbed of Smith and has to settle for marrying the well-meaning and trustworthy tobacco grower, John Rolfe (Bale). It's a simple story, though with extreme cross-cultural aspects, including Pocahontas' successful trip to meet the king and queen of England, where she sees Smith again, and hears his regrets over abandoning her. Maybe he found his Indies and passed by them, he says. It's a nice moment, amid the rich formal garden of some noble English estate. And the last sequence narrated by Rolfe has some quick cuts that are quite thrilling. Malick can thrill you, but when it comes to telling a story he can seriously let you down. The mud and poetry is an ethereal mix this time, and it all seems to vanish into the English air.
©2006 Chris Knipp