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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher)
begin a passionate love affair in The New World.

3.5 Stars

The New World is director Terrence Malick’s greatest pre-Tree of Life achievement. I say that because I have yet to see Malick’s latest film, but I think he’ll be hard pressed to top the work he did in 2005—at least the first 120 minutes of it. For two hours, The New World is nearly perfect. It’s a tragic story of unobtainable love that brilliantly parallels the early American pioneers’ quest for utopia. It’s exquisitely composed and features some fantastic acting, yet it almost falls apart in the final few scenes. It transforms suddenly from a film about ideas to a film about character, which is very atypical for Malick and kid of unwelcome in this case. It’s not as if we don’t care about the characters, but when they represent something so strong, powerful, and real, it’s nice to see that carried on throughout the entire film. Still, The New World’s strengths are too good to ignore. This is an outstanding film that every film lover needs to see.

The early 1600s was a time of conquest and exploration for a brave group of English men and women. After sailing across the Atlantic, one small group, led by Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) and Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) arrive at an encampment they’ll call Jamestown. It’s not easy living off the land, and they aren’t helped much by the natives—in fact, Smith at one point gets captured by them and is held prisoner for many months. During that time, he falls in love with Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), and she reciprocates the feelings despite what would happen should her tribe find out about the affair.

When the two lovers separate, however, their perfect love is shattered. They can never recapture the feelings of that summer, and though they see each other somewhat regularly, that sense of unbridled passion is gone. Things aren’t helped by the growing tension between the natives and the settlers, and when Pocahontas’ family finds out about the love affair, the two groups go to war, and Smith ultimately flees to England.

This is definitely the film’s strongest material. I got major Benjamin Button vibes, which for many of you would be considered a bad thing, but not for me. Like Benjamin and Daisy in David Fincher’s film, Pocahontas and Smith are soul mates who are being kept apart by circumstances beyond their control. You can feel their longing and pain (thanks to great performances and a killer score by James Horner).

These intense feelings are mirrored by the settlers in their search for a better world. Though we’re never explicitly told why they chose to come to the new world, we get glimpses into the hardships they face and the will they must have if they want to survive. Their quest for freedom is far from easy, and many of them won’t live to see their risk pay off, but these are pioneers, and though not all of them are worth celebrating, we do want them to survive and thrive in their new home—our future home.

Once Smith leaves the picture, Pocahontas is heartbroken, but she ultimately finds a new man—John Rolfe (Christian Bale). The two actually marry and have a child, but she never truly loves him, as her heart belongs to John Smith. The scenes with Rolfe are good, for the most part. The role isn’t all that challenging for Bale, but he makes Rolfe and interesting foil. He’s kindhearted and a good man, and though we realize he and Pocahontas (who’s known as Rebecca at this point in the film) aren’t necessarily the perfect match, he does care for her at a time of need.

My issues with the conclusion have nothing to do with Rolfe, but with the sudden shift in the film’s focus. Without spoiling too much, something happens that changes Pocahontas and her attitude toward everyone around her quite drastically. She achieves closure by the film’s end, but that’s not what we had been led up to for two-plus hours. And it’s not as if the ending was really all that bad; It was fine. I was happy for Pocahontas. I just wasn’t expecting Malick to abandon his philosophical points so suddenly and so close to the end of such a great film.

I feel kind of strange complaining about a film giving its characters closure. I also feel strange about sounding so negative in a review of a film I thought was great. But The New World had the makings of a Requiem for a Dream, in which the only thing that is sacred is the filmmaker’s thesis. Malick’s lyrical, moving love story says a lot, but it doesn’t exactly practice what it preaches when all is said and done. The makings are there for an all-time great, but the film’s final few scenes let it down. But it’s hard to hate on a film this good for most of its running time. The New World is beautiful—emotionally and visually. Like A.I., though, it might be a film that’s best viewed if you shut it off just before the two-hour mark.

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