The New World
directed by Terrence Malick
(New Line, 2005)

The luminescent Q'Orianka Kilcher, the young actress who played Pocahontas in The New World, is a rare, wonderful find. She dances through the film with grace and beauty, bringing an element of innocence, exuberance and wonder -- and a mastery of subtle facial nuance that half of Hollywood would die for -- to a difficult role.

It's a shame director Terrence Malick didn't give her a film to match her talents. But The New World, unfortunately, is a senseless mishmash of images and half-thoughts that wastes the various gifts brought to this film about the Jamestown colony.

By all accounts, filmmakers did a tremendous amount of research on the Algonquin people of Virginia and presented an accurate portrait of their culture at the time of the Jamestown colony's founding in 1607. For some reason, though, the research into the relationship between Captain John Smith and Pocahontas owes more to Disney than history.

In the movie, a tempestuous romance with no basis in fact blossoms between them, threatening to shake the foundations of two great societies. (To make it more palatable to modern audiences, Pocahontas was aged a few years to remove the taint of a scandal; she was, by all accounts, only 10 or 12 when the famous incident at Jamestown occurred.)

As Smith, Colin Farrell seems adrift in a part that requires far too much longing and idle contemplation, far too little action and colony-building. After he returns to England (again, for reasons that stray from the facts), Pocahontas -- now disgraced among her people, a prisoner of the colony and believing Smith dead -- is left to mope, smear ashes on her face and lie in the mud. Then John Rolfe comes along to woo her heart, but in the wake of Farrell's great meandering passion, poor Christian Bale's sincere interest seems more of an afterthought.

The film itself has an interesting look, using natural light and depth of focus to show the beauty of the land in all its splendor. The landscape is awe-inspiring, and Malick uses it to great effect; truly, the film is beautiful, if slow-moving -- large chunks of the footage could form the basis of a bestselling relaxation video. It becomes visually jarring, however, because of the director's heavy reliance on roughly cut scenic montages that play with time and do nothing to further the story. Jumbled dialogue, plodding voiceovers and a distracting, often overwhelming soundtrack by James Horner make the experience even harder to swallow.

I suppose it's too much to expect a faithful adherence to history. Disney's popularity is testament to that. But this movie stumbles over itself far too often, lacking clear direction and a comprehensible plot. And it's a shame, because the movie has beautiful cinematography at its disposal and a strong, versatile cast -- especially laughing, dancing, moving Kilcher. I hope she gets another shot at stardom soon.

by Tom Knapp
11 November 2006

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