Sometimes wonderful, often frustrating – The New World (Blu-Ray Review)

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As with a lot of Terrence Malick’s films, there is a lyrical beauty to be found in The New World, but it remains a deeply frustrating and overlong film, despite the flashes of wonder.

First released in 2005, this Criterion Collection Blu-ray adds a lot of interesting material. From extra interviews and documentaries on how it was made to multiple different cuts of the film itself, which have been beautifully digitally restored, there is a lot to delve into for both fans of the film and of Malick himself.

Unfortunately, while Malick has concocted more than one masterpiece, this film fails to sustain the brilliance in the same way as films like Badlands and Days of Heaven. Known for his deliberate, philosophical style, Malick films have always been divisive because of his wholesale rejection of a conventional narrative. At his best Malick uses the language of cinema to transcend the need for any of its more conventional structures, replacing them with his blend of visual artistry and meditative contemplation, such is his propensity for having his characters narrate their often nebulous and introspective thoughts on proceedings, but at his worst what can often be profound instead feels forced, and his ability to enrapture slips away and is replaced with a tired toleration.

There is a healthy helping of both here. The film is a retelling of the true story (though many liberties are taken here as always) of Pocahontas and focuses on the role of British settlers in the colonisation of Virginia, specifically that of John Smith (Colin Farrell). Smith is part of the first group of colonisers who establish Jamestown, the first British colony in America, in 1607. After being ordered by the head of the expedition, Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) to attempt to make peace with the local Native American population by meeting with their leader, Chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg), Smith is captured after walking into their territory and is about to be killed when the execution is stopped by Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) who is unwilling to allow it to happen, seemingly already infatuated with the new man. After the chief relents, Smith and Pocahontas get to know each other and fall in love, which leads to them having to reconcile their feelings for each other with their specific situations as apparent members of enemy groups.

In true Malick style, the setting dictates the mood of the film, and he is obsessed with the environs to such an extent that the actors take a firm backseat to the composition of each shot and the precision of the visual poetry. Malick has always been a master at this, and indeed lots of these shots are arresting (credit also goes to the master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for his superb work) but they are equally indicative of something which can quickly become a problem in his films. The actors take such a backseat that most of them feel like cardboard cut-outs (this is a star-studded cast featuring a plethora of big names, lots of whom only get one or two lines and a look at the camera). As a result, what the viewer becomes invested in is the way each shot looks on the screen, the feeling becoming one of detached admiration rather than deep involvement as it continues at arm’s length instead of engaging as it should.

There is no suggestion here that the film is as annoying or difficult as some of Malick’s worst efforts (Knight of Cups is a strong contender for that award) but that feeling of detachment prevents the film from feeling like it does its subject matter justice. Q’orianka Kilcher (who staggeringly was only fourteen when the film was made) is perhaps the only actor in the film who doesn’t suffer from its obsession with Malickisms, imbuing a personal identity into her character which the others uniformly lack. Where Smith’s whispered narration can feel a little like a new age therapy tape at times, Pocahontas’ words do carry power, and Kilcher is the reason for that.

Overall though, The New World doesn’t stand on its own two feet as much as it should. Three cuts of the film are available here: the original 150-minute version, an extended 172-minute version (new for the Blu-Ray), and the abridged 135-minute version, but regardless of the version, the length of the film is a key cause of how much the film meanders. It begins to lose focus after about 90 minutes as it flits from one moment to the next, feeling grand and epic without ever quite managing to be truly substantial, beyond a few specific moments. Still, fans of Malick’s work will find plenty of extra features to enjoy here, and the chance to compare different versions of a film that showcases both the best, and worst, of the famous and divisive director.

Dir: Terrence Malick

Scr: Terrence Malick

Cast: Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, August Schellenberg, David Thewlis, Raoul Trujillo, Eddie Marsan

Prd: Sarah Green

DOP: Emmanuel Lubezki

Music: James Horner

Country: United States, United Kingdom

Year: 2020

Runtime: 135 minutes/150 minutes/172 minutes

The Criterion Collection edition of The New World is available from Monday 14th December on Blu-ray.

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