Point your canoe out into a nature preserve, if you can find one far enough away from highways and flyways that you can’t hear them. Drift at evening and simply listen. There are birds and insects, there is the rustle of trees, and there is the sibilant sound of water on your hull.
It may not be possible to do that on this continent anymore, but you could 400 years ago. Director Terence Malick has imagined what it might have been like and created it on film.
Malick’s style is not so much about storytelling as about mood-setting. One could say that The New World is “about” Pocahontas. It does tell her story from the arrival of Captain John Smith through her death in England. But there is much more to the movie than its events.
Pocahontas and Her Lovers
PG-13 for some intense battle sequences
(Note: this review is based on a longer version of the film, shown last fall to critics. The current theatrical release is a quarter hour shorter and may not match the print I saw.)
In the film’s first movement, Malick tells us about John Smith (Colin Farrell), an Englishman who has fallen out of favor with his shipmates. Nevertheless, every hand is needed now that they have landed and Smith is released from his arrest so long as he contributes to the colony. Farrell gives Smith an inner strength and a natural leadership that somehow sets him above his shipmates, even in his lowered social position.
Smith is sent off to scout for the colony and is captured by Pocahontas’ tribe. She sees his inner strength, the immanent spark in him, and saves him from execution at the hands of her father. This also begins the film’s first love story.
At the end of the season, Smith returns to the colony, ruddy and healthy from months of living with the Indians. On his return he finds the colonists poxy and thin, barely living, in squalor and filth. Almost immediately he is elected their new leader. Pocahontas comes to the colony to live with him.
When captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) returns from England, he takes over the colony and sends Smith away on another mission. Rather than let Pocahontas pine for him, he breaks their relationship, leaving her alone in the world of the whites.
The film’s final movement shows Pocahontas’ relationship with John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and their brief journey to England.
Episodic movies are always problematical. The compression of time requires cutting from one scene to another without much padding in-between. The result is almost always a movie with a lot of hard edges and corners as we jump from place to place and time to time. But Malick finds a way to smooth out the rough edges. He lumps these small episodes together into larger blocks with the same tone, feeling, and sound. The New World doesn’t feel like a jumble of scenes stuck jaggedly together; it feels like three broad, smooth movements, each with its own overarching style and tone, even when Malick jumps days or weeks at a time.
When there are significant jumps between time and place, or between movements, Malick blacks the screen for two seconds. It really is jarring, but each time, he continues the sound, cleverly and masterfully masking the cut. So even though the picture has suddenly jumped, the sound — sound effects, music, and narration — has been continuous, thus maintaining the tone and smoothing over what is ordinarily a necessary evil in an episodic movie.
While this may be enough to attract aspiring editors, it’s hardly high praise. Perhaps a better way to put it is to say that The New World sounds gorgeous, and even though the plot may be problematical, Malick immerses you in his composition so that you don’t even notice the thin and wispy plot.
The New World is not about the storytelling; it’s a tone poem. It may have traditional biography as its base, but the movie is more about creating a space for your emotions, guided by your eyes and ears, to resonate in.