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The New World

Directed and written by Terrence Malick, starring Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, Q'orianka Kilcher, color, PG-13,150 minutes, general release 135 minutes

Paradise Lost

By John D. Delmar

Terrence Malick has created a work of lyrical beauty in "The New World," an historical adventure film about the first white settlers to colonize the Virginia Colony. This is a poetic, flowing tribute to the glories of nature, to the plunder and violation of innocence, to Paradise Lost. It is the story of Barbarians invading a peaceful community and despoiling the earth. Unfortunately, we are the Barbarians.

The film is like a panoramic landscape by Thomas Cole, Frederic Church or Albert Bierstadt - artists who also attempted to depict the beauty of Nature, unspoiled by Man. It is a broad, expansive canvas, filled with light and air and atmosphere. Malick captures the birds, the trees, the water and the glory of this new land and its majesty.

The film opens with scenes of "the naturals," the Native Americans, swimming in the clean, crystal waters off the Virginia tidewater coastline, crosscut with the visions of explorer/settler John Smith (Colin Farrell), who is enclosed in a rusty ship's brig. Throughout, Malick contrasts the claustrophobic, ignorant, narrow-minded Anglo settlers with the free and natural natives.

There are many films dealing with the winning of the West, but not very many dealing with the winning of the East, 200 years earlier. Disney released a popular and sappy animated cartoon, "Pocahontas," in 1995, but the birth of a nation, the epic and dramatic period of the early settlements, has been largely overlooked.

Malick tries to get it right, although the "noble native" revisionist vision is probably as distorted as John Ford's nameless, savage "Injuns" (see The City Review article on the Museum of the American Indian show, "Spirit Capture,"). Malick hired a linguist to translate the script and to teach his native actors to speak Algonquin, a language extinct for the past 200 years. Rather than have generic feathered and beaded Red Men wailing gibberish in the forest, Malick hired enough academic consultants to fill a university Ethnic Diversity Department, making sure the clothes, the villages, the customs and even the crops were authentic (Malick had three acres of appropriate crops planted-- squash, Indian corn and tobacco).

It makes a difference; the film has the aura of authenticity, even though no one in the audience is likely to correct an Algonquin grammatic error. As von Stroheim once noted, in relation to having his actors all wearing period undergarments, sometimes fanatic verisimilitude is as much for the actors as the audience.

Colin Farrell certainly looks authentic in his long, stringy hair, grungy beard, and dirty puffy shirt - either a weary Jamestown settler or a Kurt Cobain wannabe. Most of the film, Farrell looks dazed and confused, which I suppose is appropriate because he IS lost in the wilderness. His range is limited, however. Frequently, he looks like he'd rather just be in a pub having an ale with his mates.

Q'orianka Kilcher, playing an unnamed Indian maiden, is stunning in her film debut. She was 14 years old when first discovered. There are times when she is playful and girlish, but with incredible maturity and depth. She shows wonder and curiosity about the new settlers, like a girl with a new doll. At other times, she displays the gravitas and serious demeanor of an Indian princess, aware of her reponsibilities to her people and to her father. Despite hostility and opposition from some of her own, she saves the lives of the helpless settlers, who are too woebegone and inept to know how to feed themselves, and in particular, she saves the hunky John Smith, with whom she is smitten. Kilcher is not a Native American (she's Peruvian-Swiss, not that it should matter - she's an actress!), but she has the exotic good looks of one of Gauguin's tropical Tahitian maidens. She exemplifies the innocence of this new land - virginal and pure, but with unlimited potential. She transforms on the screen, one moment just a love-struck little girl, another moment a mature wife off to England.

In her expressions, in her eyes, one sees the coming of age of a woman, and also of a new world.

The supporting cast is believeable and generally adequate, either oafish, selfish white folks trying to survive, or muscular, clever naturals, curious and helpful at first, then hostile when they realize the newcomers pose threats (the first example of NIMBY in America).

Christopher Plummer is appropriately autocratic as Captain Newport. Christian Bale seems a bit too good to be true as the wealthy planter John Rolfe, who marries the Indian maiden and brings her to be presented to the Royal court like some foreign debutante.

But the film isn't really about the actors or the acting - it is about stunning, ethereal images washing over the theater. This is primarily a story about Nature. It is a love song to the beauty of our Eden. For commercial reasons, Malick has agreed to cut 15 minutes or so of the nature shots from the original release to create a slimmer general release version of the film, to be added back, with additional footage, to the Director's cut DVD. American audiences are apparently too fidgety to enjoy beauty for beauty's sake, at least not sitting in a theater.

Malick's cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (Y Tu Mama Tambien), influenced by cinematic naturalism, tries to avoid artificial lights and CGI effects. He and Malick agreed whenever possible to obtain a "natural" look, even in night shots and indoor scenes. Night shots are often illuminated with campfires; shots inside the Indian huts are pierced with rays of natural sunlight. The characters come alive in the sun and moonlight and flora and fauna and woods and shores where these deeds took place some 400 years ago, on location, within the shadows of the specters of our history.

Much of the Pocahontas and John Smith story is presumed to be myth and romantic legend.

But Malick's beautiful film tells the true tale of the brave and foolhardy men of the London Company who came to live and work in a "new world." 90% of them perished from starvation and disease in the first year or so. Were it not for them, and their suffering and hardship, and the naive kindness of the natives, we might not be here today.

Cover of the Blue-ray edition

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Copyright John D. Delmar 2006

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