Colin Farrell as John Smith
Q’Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas
Christian Bale as John Rolfe
Christopher Plummer as Captain Christopher Newport
Ben Chaplin as Jehu Robinson
Noah Taylor as Selway
David Thewlis as Captain Edward Wingfield
Wes Studi as Opechancanough
August Schellenberg as Powhatan
Myrton Running Wolf as Tockwhogh
Raoul Trujillo as Tomocomo
Josh Padgett as Joshua
Ben Mendelsohn as Ben
Jeremy Radin as Jeremy
Jeremy Wade as Jeremy
Yorick van Wageningen as Captain Argall
Will Wallace as William Sentry
Alex Rice as Patowomeck’s Wife
What starts as a fascinating premise for a great film is diluted by convoluted storytelling and a pathological obsession with its 15-year old star. Thanks, Mr. Mallick, for 2 1/2 hours of pretentious wanking! (Important note: ComingSoon.net reviewer Edward Douglas saw an early version of the film, which may be edited down more for the official release of the film in January.)
As British ships arrive on the shores of Virginia in 1607, Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) is sent on a mission to find food. When his men are accosted and killed by the native Powhatan tribe, the only thing that saves Smith from death is the chief’s daughter Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) who he falls for, causing even more dissention among his ranks and ultimately leading to war between the two peoples.
Somewhere in the mind of director Terrence Malick (“The Thin Red Line”), there was an idea rumbling around for decades, to make a film about the true story of the first American settlers and their relationship with the natives or “naturals”, particularly the legendary romance between Captain John Smith and the daughter of the tribe’s chief, Pocahontas. It’s certainly a great idea, and in the hands of a fine filmmaker like Malick, one would expect something quite remarkable, especially considering the number of great films about the interaction between Europeans and Native Americans that have come before, like “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last of the Mohicans.”
With that in mind, the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film are quite fascinating, as we watch British ships land on American soil, and we first see them encounter the natives of this new land. Although they’re not savages, they’re primitive and inquisitive about the newcomers. When they arrive, Captain Smith is in chains for staging a mutiny and his commander assigns him to lead the dangerous expedition to find food in the new territories. The natives aren’t as friendly about the new intruders, and it takes the daughter of the tribe’s chief to save Smith from his men’s fate. Adopted by the young girl, Smith learns the cultures of the tribe and spends a lot of time with her having an innocent relationship, but her love for Smith causes her to betray her own people when war raises its head, and this is where he true story begins, as she’s ousted from her tribe.
The interaction between these two very different cultures is the most intriguing aspect of Malick’s new film, and with that in mind, his attempts to portray the early Americans as realistically as possible is certainly commendable. Trying to follow the story is another matter, and it’s mostly a lesson in futility due to the lack of dialogue, and the fact that there really isn’t much of a story to follow. Basically, it’s “Clan of the Cave Bear” all over again. Even the tension that builds between the two peoples never delivers on the type of epic battles that we’re expecting, since the fights end after a few minutes, as Malick’s A.D.D. kicks in and he takes the story elsewhere.
Much of the dialogue by the natives isn’t subtitled, but the little bit that is uses an obscenely large font that obstructs too much of the visuals. It probably would have been more helpful if the English speaking cast were subtitled, since a lot of the accents, particularly Farrell’s, are incomprehensible.
Ultimately, this isn’t Smith’s story, as much as it is that of this young girl from a primitive culture, who will grow to become an ambassador for her people. Q’orianka Kilcher is beautiful, and not completely untalented, but Malick uses this as an excuse for the camera to dote on her, casually observing her in all sorts of mundane activities from collecting water to petting a cow. After a few hours of this, it’s hard not to feel a bit uneasy, because it makes you wonder whether Dirty Old Malick is interested in this 15-year-old actress in ways that might get him the type of unwanted attention that has harmed the reputations of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen.
Despite the lack of dialogue, the film’s sublime ambience of nature sounds is interrupted by a pointless and droning voice-over, alternating between Farrell in his heavy Irish brogue and Kilcher, reading a pretentious poetic ode that has little to do with the scenes we’re watching. This is probably wrong of me to say, but I kept wanting to hear Kilcher say, “You call it corn, we call it maize” just to see if Malick was paying attention. That probably would have made about as much sense as the ridiculous babble being read over the unwatchable scenes of Farrell and Kilcher cavort in the water or in fields of tall grass.
That said, Pocahontas spends most of the film in various states of near undress, although never in any state that might endanger the film’s ridiculous attempts to maintain a PG-13 rating. When people are in as much love as Smith and Pocahontas seem to be, there is usually romance and sex, which usually involves some sort of nudity. At the hands of Dirty Old Malick, the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas is entirely platonic. When people fight, either with guns or rocks or blades, there’s usually blood, and the fact that there isn’t, makes “The New World” the most homogenized historic epic ever. Using the term “epic” is probably already giving the film more than its due.
If you weren’t confused enough after two hours of this, Christian Bale shows up as a new character, who is barely introduced before he becomes Pocahontas’ new suitor when she’s told that Smith is dead. Bale immediately takes over for Farrell in the incessant voice-over, but he also gives a much stronger performance as the man who’ll never win the love that Pocahontas shared with Smith. The last half hour of the film spans many years, as Bale’s character marries Pocahontas, and they have a child together. Years later, “Pocahontas” is brought by her new husband to England for an audience with the Queen, where she’s declared royalty, and Kilcher seems more comfortable and suited for that environment than the wilds of America.
Although the movie is mostly a dud, there are a few other decent performances like that of Christopher Plummer, who is very good for the few moments we see him. Same goes for David Thewlis, who appears and is gone before you can figure out who he is and what he has to do with the story.
It pains me to completely abhor this boring film only because the soundtrack by James Horner is absolutely gorgeous, as are the nature visuals by Malick’s director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki. I probably would have enjoyed just listening to the soundtrack or watching a short reel of the film’s nature scenes, because sitting through two-and-a-half hours of the rest of it is torture. I greatly envy anyone able to do so.
The Bottom Line:
While “The New World” could have been as strong a documentation of early Americans as any of the great historic epics of the last twenty years, instead it’s a pretentious and mostly dull romantic film about a prepubescent girl. Honestly, the material was covered better in the Disney animated film, and at least that had some singing to keep things lively.
The New World opens in New York and Los Angeles on Sunday, December 25, and nationwide on January 13.