The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The New World

Reviewed by Neon Kelly.

Director Terrence Malick
Length 135min
Certificate 12a
Rating *********-
Filmmaking: 5  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Some filmmakers approach their trade like featherweight boxers. They flit about in many directions, try different approaches and generally attempt to throw as many punches (films) as possible. Some punches will hit their target, others will miss completely, and some will reach the opponent (audience) but not quite make contact in the way they should, bouncing off limply, to the dissatisfaction of both parties. The large number of punches thrown means that the boxer can usually cope with the odd miss (turkey), provided that they get the odd hit (hit) in once in a while. Then sooner or later the bell will ring and the fighter can return to their corner to be mopped down with a sponge (sponge).

If Terrence Malick were a fighter, he’d be a rock. In the ring he would barely move at all. But when he finally hit you… boy would you know it.

To abandon the unflattering and needlessly wordy metaphor: The New World is a beautiful, intelligent, superbly crafted film, one which happily stands alongside the director’s previous pictures. The point is not that Malick has made only four features in his 37 year career; the point is that the man is an artist, and that every one of those four films are works to be held aloft alongside the best that the cinematic medium has to offer.

The New World sees Malick approach the story of John Smith, the 17th Century English explorer who helped to establish Jamestown - the first long-term British settlement in America. The film begins with the arrival of Smith and his associates, charting the development of the settlers’ relations with American natives, but soon draws focus on the relationship between Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher), the daughter of the local chief.

Like the director himself, Malick’s new film takes is in little hurry to get down to business. This is in a no way a criticism, and at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, it is remarkably refreshing to see a film that largely shies away from high-pace editing. As with The Thin Red Line (1998), the slowburn approach occasionally makes way for outbursts of swift-footed violence, but for most of its running time The New World is marked by an introspective, thoughtful tone.

The main thing - the only thing, really - to know about The New World is that it looks incredible. Among art critics, the word “beautiful” is overused almost to the point of irrelevance, which is a shame because it really is the best word to describe Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. Few people will immediately pick up on the use of 65mm stock, but they’ll certainly notice how lush everything looks. The use of light is particularly impressive in the scenes where Smith first encounters the natives as sunshine trickles through forest canopies or cuts into the dark of the village huts. The soundtrack is also highly enjoyable, evoking power and wonder without ever intruding on what is unfolding.

The chemistry between the central couple is worthy of more than the brief mention that this review can afford. Colin Farrell may have his critics, but here he is impressively subtle. The relative paucity of dialogue leaves Smith’s characterisation to be built through long stretches of near-silent expression, and Farrell ultimately carries this off with more panache than many will have previously given him credit for. Q'Orianka Kilcher - only 15 years old at the time of filming - is even better as the young princess, and gives a more considered performance than many actresses with decades more experience. The romance between Smith and Pocahontas is grown out of actions rather than words, and while Malick must get the most credit for pulling off this delicate feat, Farrel and Kilcher carry the heart of the film.

The New World has already begun to collect critical acclaim but it remains to be seen whether or not the British public (or those elsewhere) will actually go to see it. Early trailers seems to market the film as a kind of follow-up to Last of the Mohicans (1992), a horrific blunder not unlike the decision to sell The Thin Red Line as an echo of Saving Private Ryan (1998). More recent advertising stresses the films romantic credentials, and while this is a step in the right direction there are bound to be a few people who go in expecting relatively lightweight entertainment and come out complaining about the pace. For the rest of us, this is cinematic pleasure of the highest calibre.

This review was published on January 27, 2006.

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