|The New World (2006)
Starring: Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, David Thewlis, Q’Orianka Kilcher
Director: Terrence Malick
It’s a real shame that “The New World” didn’t open in theaters at the end of December as originally planned, because if it did, there would have been few other films standing in the way of its climb to the top of my Worst Films of 2005 list. Instead, director Terrence Malick has spent the past three weeks retooling his feature after early screenings resulted in a unanimous wave of contempt. Sorry Terrence, but editing twenty minutes from the total runtime and removing a controversial sex scene between star Colin Farrell and underage newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher just isn’t going to cut it. The main problem with your film isn’t in length (though that is a problem), but rather the experimental methods that were used to tell a well-known tale about the relationship formed between an English soldier and a Native American princess.
Anyone who’s seen Disney’s animated adaptation of the classic tale, or ever paid attention in grade school, is familiar with the basic premise: It’s 1607, and English settlers have arrived at the banks of the Virginia coast with the task of establishing a new colony. As the only soldier in the group, Captain John Smith (Farrell) is charged with forming a trade relationship between his men and the Native Americans (referred to here as “naturals"). Instead, the naturals capture Smith and take him back into the woods where they plan to execute him, but his life is saved when the chief’s favorite daughter, Pocahontas (Kilcher), begs for his mercy. The two quickly form an intimate relationship, but as winter approaches, Smith is sent back to his camp with a message from the chief to leave as soon as spring arrives.
The Englishmen stay put, of course, and a battle for land begins. The short scuffle results in a handful of dead warriors on either side (with no clear winner in view) as the naturals head back to the woods and the Englishmen retreat to their forted camp. Shortly after, Pocahontas is exiled by her father for warning the Englishmen, and then traded to them for a copper pot. Ouch. Smith, meanwhile, is ordered by the king to explore north just as a new group of colonists arrive, among them John Rolfe (Christian Bale). After Pocahontas is told of Smith’s demise at sea, Rolfe engages in a courtship with the young princess and the couple is promptly married. Pocahontas is given an extreme makeover, including an education and a Christian name (Rebecca), and is sent for by the king and queen to make an appearance in England.
Pulled through all of this wreckage is a fine cast of leading actors, namely Bale, who never ceases to amaze in whatever role he appears in, as well as a small group of familiar faces with one or two speaking lines each, including Christopher Plummer, David Thewlis and Noah Taylor. Why, oh why would you waste this kind of talent on throwaway roles whose shoes could have easily been filled by any half-competent actor looking for a week’s pay? Malick did the same thing with his last effort, “The Thin Red Line,” and it was just as confusing then as it is now.
Malick has reportedly been sitting on this script for nearly thirty years, and it’s hard to imagine he hasn’t once thought about changing anything. Very little dialogue is spoken throughout the two-hour plus ordeal, and not because of the language barrier between the Englishmen and the naturals. Pocahontas can actually speak perfect English, amazingly, even though she spent little under a few months with Smith learning the language, but this is hardly the issue to address. Most frustrating of all is the heavy use of internal dialogue by the film’s principal actors. The characters spout out streams of philosophical poetry that beg the audience to pay attention, while we’re busy checking our watches to see how much longer we have to suffer. Some would say that this is an artistic approach at emulating the act of eavesdropping on someone’s thoughts, but it’s really just a case of lazy scriptwriting.
These problems don’t become noticeable until almost an hour into the film, though, because the beautiful cinematography will have most people absolutely mesmerized. There’s no doubt that Malick is a talented director. He knows how to film natural environments with the same soothing touch of a Sounds of the Rainforest CD, but he also shoots everything else the exact same way. The long, winding shots of Farrell and Kilcher dancing around one another are enough to put anyone to sleep, and while it’s picturesque the first time around, it quickly becomes a drag to sit through. We get it, you’re trying to be artsy. Problem is, no one cares.
New Line would have been better off not even bringing this film on DVD at all, but the single-disc release does include a 60-minute making-of featurette, perhaps to explain why it took so long for director Terrence Malick to edit the damn thing.