This review was originally published at Christianity Today.
A follow-up review was published at Image upon the release of the “extended cut” of the movie..
Both are reproduced below.
The New World – Theatrical Release Review (January 20, 2006)
It’s all in the eyes.
That’s one of the lessons in The New World, an epic story of love and change, from the celebrated writer/director Terrence Malick. As the Europeans arrive on North American shores in 1607, we watch history unfold through the eyes of two characters on opposite sides of a cultural divide: John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher).
The New World is an extravagant achievement in historical recreation. It’s also the most refined example of Malick’s visual poetry, which he developed through Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. He has a meditative style all his own that will aggravate many viewers who prefer straightforward narrative and conventional Hollywood flourishes. He’s not an entertainer so much as he is a poet who uses pictures instead of words. Creation itself pours forth speech, as the psalmist says, and Malick invites those with eyes to see to look closer and listen carefully.
At times, the imagery captured by Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera feels like a dream: a line of birds unfurling from the forest like a whip, a lightning blast whiting out the wilderness, and—Malick’s favorite spectacle—wind in the grass.
But we’re given more than the wonders, joys, and horrors that Smith and Pocahontas witness. Malick lets us eavesdrop on their private thoughts, the way we listened to the philosophical soldiers of The Thin Red Line. Their inner monologues distill their experiences into primal questions: What compels men to control or destroy what they don’t understand? Where does the conscience come from? What does love require of us?
If eyes are windows to the soul, John Smith’s soul is deeply troubled. He’s a haunted, damaged, guarded man. When he’s released from imprisonment in a ship’s holding cell, brought out into broad daylight, and given a chance to redeem himself for “mutinous remarks,” Smith looks at this “promised land” through a turbulent mix of fear and ambition.
He has reason to be afraid: His own people are volatile, quarreling, and divided over who should lead them in the unexplored territory. When winter arrives and food grows scarce, some will turn downright beastly. These Europeans talk like a God-fearing bunch, but the irony is a thick as the mud on their boots. One moment they’re musing about God’s love and growing nostalgic for Eden, and the next they’re tying up natives and loading their pistols.
Under the direction of Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer), the Jamestown settlement begins to take shape. Newport, striving to gain a firm foothold for London’s Virginia Company in this “promised land,” speechifies about how this paradise was given to the Englanders by God, and “wobetide the man who turns his back on him.” Too late. Ungodly behavior has already begun in earnest, as they dig in their heels and jealously plot how to take ownership of the territory.
Smith is also properly wary of the distrustful and dangerous natives, members of an ancient culture ruled by a chieftain called Powhatan (August Schellenberg). The first meeting of these contrary societies is an intense pageant of amazement and curiosity that sets our nerves on edge.
Despite Smith’s burning gaze, the eyes that will haunt you long after the credits roll belong to the young, impetuous, graceful girl who saves his life from the natives’ wrath—Pocahontas. Through her eyes, the natural beauty of a land her culture has long called home seems to be newly born, the forest taking its first breath, the trees stretching skyward in exuberance.
Her compassion wins Smith’s freedom and slowly drives the shadows from his troubled eyes, inspiring him to tenderness and a longing for “a new start, a fresh beginning.” Thus, Smith and the girl begin a cautious, curious, flirtatious dance, winding through Powhatan’s neighborhood, one of the most beautiful courtships ever filmed.
Kilcher was just 14 when this was filmed, and Farrell is almost 30. But while there is speculation about the reality of the Smith/Pocahontas romance, historical accounts confirm the age difference between these two, and the fact that their friendship became a vital, influential link between cultures.
Thus, it’s excruciating to watch this vulnerable girl bruised in the crucible of European progress, betrayed by the newcomers and their lies—and by her own people as well. Malick finds in Pocahontas a metaphor for all things that pure, virginal, and innocent: her beauty will inspire evil impulses to claim, conquer, and corrupt her. Malick unleashes astonishing battle scenes—swift and dizzying storms in which the natives’ speed makes rifles seem impractical. Caught in the middle of a hateful conflict, Pocahontas faces tough choices between what the world values—tradition, trinkets, property, power—and the costly rewards of true love. Her selfless attempts to bridge the divide provides a deeply moving portrait of selfless devotion.
But there is a third perspective central to this story. Late in the film, we meet a widowed farmer named John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who resembles John Smith with one fundamental difference. Again, it’s in the eyes. In a typical big screen epic, the rival for the heroine’s heart is a man confined by tradition, seeking marriage, and oozing evil from every pore. And Rolfe has all the makings of a big screen villain—he’s traditional, he grows tobacco, and what is more … he’s a Christian!
Thus, it’s disorienting to find that Rolfe’s gaze is quiet, gentle and inquisitive. He’s drawn to this broken princess out of a shared sense of suffering. “Are you kind?” she asks him, unsure whether she can ever trust a white man—or any man—to be honest with her again. Rolfe’s response is a gaze of such grace that it’s likely some filmmaker will invite Christian Bale to play the next big screen Jesus. (He’s already familiar with the part.)
Speaking of the Messiah, Malick also includes the true story of Pocahontas’s baptism and conversion to Christianity, although he leaves the sincerity of her decisions open to interpretation. Who could blame her for being suspicious of European religion after all that she has seen? But there is hope in the fact that Rolfe represents a different kind of European, a truer kind of Christian.
Bale’s performance is one of several—including strong turns by Christopher Plummer, David Thewlis, Wes Studi, and Noah Taylor—that seems to have been cut short when The New World suffered a severe, last minute edit, cutting some 16 minutes from the original version. (We catch fleeting glimpses of Ben Chaplin and Jonathan Pryce along the way as well.) This edit may have streamlined the storytelling, but it has also produced disorienting transitions.
The two leads, however, are given generous space to win our hearts, and they do. Farrell is riveting, commanding our attention whenever he’s onscreen . . . except when Kilcher steps in. What a discovery she is! Her profoundly affecting work is probably too subtle to capture the attention of Oscar voters, but she outdoes any other performance by an actress this year while speaking only a few lines.
Malick deserves acclaim as well, not just for his imagination, but for fairness. Just as he shows us Christian hypocrites and Christian heroes, he admirably refuses to idealize either the colonists or the natives, avoiding caricature and showing that the true battle is not between one tradition or another, but between good and evil in every human heart. Smith’s conscience moves him to a psalm-like plea: “Lord, turn not away thy face. I have not harkened to your voice.” By contrast, his kinsman mutters, “Conscience is a nuisance. A fly. A barking dog.”
Some critics are already drawing parallels between Malick’s version of this story and current headlines regarding foreign occupations, homeland security, and “culture wars.” But Malick’s movie transcends convenient correlations. It becomes not a matter of which culture is right or wrong, but how individuals in either camp will behave as children of God.
In one easily overlooked moment, Pocahontas gazes at a tree that, despite a broken branch, continues to grow toward the light. Malick returns frequently to the images of trees that tower and sway, heads disappearing into the heavens. In doing so, he reminds us that, regardless of which culture gains supremacy, or what is lost along the way, what truly matters is how we respond to the summons of that heavenly light. The gentle coaxing of that still small voice asks us to turn our eyes toward the source of a love that can sustain us through any loss and any change.
The New World – Extended Cut Review (November 26, 2008)
In Babette’s Feast, the protagonist carries her winning lottery ticket down to the edge of the water. She could take the winnings and go home to France, leaving behind her servant’s life. Staring toward the horizon, she chooses something else.
A pregnant pause, a silent meditation, a decision.
For Jeffrey Wygand in The Insider, the stakes are higher. If he testifies against Big Tobacco, he may become a martyr for the cause. His family may crumble under the pressure. Surrounded by security guards, he walks to the water and stares into the light. A pause, a meditation, a decision.
It happens all the time. In movie after movie, I’ve seen characters turn to the natural world, leaning into the great beyond as if it has something to say to them. In moments of decision, they stare as if reading some mysterious script, some celestial calligraphy.
In Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, city-dwellers worn out with stress and trouble drive to the edge of a vast and glorious spectacle. In silent awe, they find repair for hearts gone out of tune. Even Luke Skywalker, after a hard day of miserable chores on the moisture farm, stares off at the setting of two burning suns, sensing a profound call upon his life.
Such moments resonate with us. We’ve all experienced the deep, subtle ministry of the heavens as they declare God’s glory. I’m convinced that the huge success of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy came about, in part, because audience were spellbound by the grandeur of New Zealand for three hours at a time. The power of so much splendid scenery spoke to people.
That’s why I often revisit Terrence Malick’s masterpiece—The New World. The film has become like a liturgy for me. And this new Extended Cut, just released on DVD, could not have come at a better time. I’m exhausted by recent election coverage, campaign promises, and idealism that is as unrealistic as it is inspiring. I need to regain my perspective.
Watching The New World again, I’m amazed at how Malick has improved upon an already brilliant tapestry, weaving in more than twenty new minutes that greatly enhance its poetry. No film that I can name is more attentive to the influence of natural beauty upon human beings. And no film more clearly illustrates what Psalm 19 has always claimed: That creation “pours forth speech” day by day. While friends complain that the film was already too long, I’ve caught Malick’s fever. As he meditates on the reflective qualities of still waters, they restore my soul.
As a boat carries Captain John Smith downriver into unknown territory, he’s hypnotized by the light and prays, “Who are you whom I so faintly hear, who urge me ever on? What voice is this that speaks within me, guides me towards the best?”
The year is 1606, and the settlement of Jamestown is under construction. Smith’s been given a position of leadership and encouraged to rise to his “true stature.” The glory of this unspoiled “promised land” inspires him to dream grand dreams. “Always the star is guiding me, leading me, drawing me on to the fabled land,” he says. “There life shall begin. A world equal to our hopes.”
Maybe it’s just that I’ve just endured many months of televised campaign speeches and debates, but doesn’t this sound like the impossible idealism of a candidate running for office? And yet, Smith is sincere. Creation kindles in him a longing for what was meant to be.
“We shall make a new start,” he continues, declaring that no one will want for anything in this new world. “Here there is good ground for all and no cost but one’s labor. We shall build a true commonwealth, hard work and self-reliance our virtues. We shall have no landlords to rack us with high rents or extort the fruit of our labor. No man should stand above any other but all live under the same law. None shall eat up carelessly what his friends got worthily or steal away that which virtue has stored up. Men shall not make each other their spoil.”
But even as Smith’s heart sings this noble hymn, take note: He’s dragging along a Powahatan captive. And when his men bring the boat to ground, they immediately steal from a Powahatan camp that was hastily evacuated. So much for all of that idealism.
A few chapters later, Jamestown settlers declare Smith their new president. They pin their hopes on him during a time of—let’s face it—economic disaster. Lazy and selfish, they bring out the worst in each other. And just beyond their polluted property, an ancient civilization turns aggressive, feeling threatened by this forward-thinking, technologically advanced people. Jamestown is besieged by the very natives that Smith in his idealism described as “gentle, loving, faithful.” He walks along the Jamestown walls which trap residents in a prison of disease and dissension, and he concludes, “Damnation is like this.”
Throughout The New World, seekers, lovers, and explorers who attend to the light that summons them find their strength renewed. Those that seek to seize and possess that which reflects the light—they fail and fall.
In one of the extended cut’s surprising additions, Smith advises himself: “Cling to the God. As long as you do you have a claim on life.” In those words, he captures why it is he fails to find consolation of his own. And he sums up why the young native princess is capable of enduring one catastrophic loss after another, and rise again to dance in the sunlight.
As many around me celebrate the hope of some “new era,” I hope that I can avoid the cynicism of experience. Sure, those who pin their hopes on any one man will be disappointed. But the longing for a new beginning stems from the eternity written in our hearts.