Sunday, January 22, 2006

The New World

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Q'Orianka Kilcher
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Ye Olde Violence

Francis' Theory of Movie Equations states any new movie can be expressed as an equation of older ones. So take Dances With Wolves, add Titanic, multiply by Pocahontas, and divide by Memoirs Of A Geisha and the result is The New World, a trippy, skippy adventure short on dialogue and long on ambience. The title might lead you to think it's another period-piece adventure, focusing on the settlement of Jamestown and the romance between the formentioned Indian princess and Captain John Smith. It is, and it isn't.

Director Terrence Malick explores uncharted territory of the soul as his characters explore the vast wildnerness and danger of early America. The New World is more about love than land, which explains why so much of the story of Jamestown is glossed over: the population of the settlement with too many gentlemen and not enough laborers, the disasterous first winter where dozens died, and efforts to make glass. Wait, that last one isn't mentioned at all. If you want authenticity on the English side, go somewhere else -- like Jamestown Settlement in Virginia.

The story revolves around Smith's (Farrell) romance with Pocahontas (Kilcher), who as we know, saved Smith from execution by Powhatan tribal members. But this is no Disney movie. The natives -- or "naturals" as the film refers to them -- are portrayed exceptionally well down to them not speaking a word of English. The awkward first encounters between the settlers and the natives are filled with authentic tension and dread. Pocahontas, though loved deeply by her tribal king father, eventually falls out of favor for giving too much comfort and aid to the settlers. Smith, likewise, gets into trouble over fancying a natural.

The film is filled with grandeur, hyphenated by flashes of thought and snapshots of joy. At times it plays like a rock video. At times it plays like a memoir, with characters narrating the story as if they were writing letters back home to England. We see several takes of Pocahontas skipping through the fields, dancing among the natives, doing cartwheels on the lawn. And yet an early sequence of the colonists discovering the land that would be their home holds long without dialogue, underscored by a musical cresendo from James Horner, conveying to us the awesome wonder the settlers must have felt upon seeing the greenery of colonial Virginia.

To call The New World an historical epic doesn't fit, for it is neither completely historical nor epic. It is more of a scrapbook with pieces stiched together. Films with historic themes can easily drift into tedium when filmmakers feel obligated to stick to the textbook. Malick does not, and while you may not care for that approach, you certainly won't be bored.

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