Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
I haven’t seen Terrence Malick’s new film, A Hidden Life, which opens this weekend. A planned press screening was canceled earlier this week; the film would have been shown Tuesday afternoon, after a morning screening of the new Star Wars film and before an evening show of Cats. That would have been a day to remember.
Alas, it was not to be. So instead of talking about A Hidden Life, I will look back at Malick’s The New World, a movie highly thought of in some quarters (it has been turning up on some best-of-century-so-far lists), but not in this particular quarter. But then the last Malick film I really liked was The Thin Red Line, so I may be out of step entirely. (I did watch the three-hour cut later, and it didn’t change my mind.)
Anyway, here’s how The New World looked to me when it opened in 2005.
The New World
Terrence Malick, who directed no films between 1978’s Days of Heaven and 1998’s The Thin Red Line, has stirred himself to work again. A mere seven years between projects represents a fast clip for this mysterious filmmaker.
The new one is The New World, a telling of the settling of Jamestown in 1607, and the famed love story of John Smith and Pocahontas. It can be recommended only to diehard fans of Malick’s previous work or to moviegoers who have given up on traditional storytelling in favor of pure visual poetry.
When three English ships arrive on the shores of Virginia, a rebellious mercenary named John Smith (Colin Farrell) is disgorged from below decks. He’s saved from the hangman’s noose only because the captain (Christopher Plummer) needs every available body to help establish Britain’s place on the New World.
The inconvenient fact that people have already settled the land is the film’s main subject. The local tribesmen are alternately hostile and helpful to the newcomers, but mostly they keep their distance.
Smith, of course, falls in love with Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), a native girl. Although the movie offers up views on the despoiling of a Native American Eden, the love story, dreamy and soft and shapeless, seems to be Malick’s main interest. His lovers are forever romping through waving fields of grass or passionately saving each other from illness.
There is some narration, not much dialogue, and a lot of music, including plenty of mysterioso Wagner. There’s no conventional structure or suspense, but the photography is absolutely stunning (this is one of the rare films to use 65mm. film stock in some of its sequences).
A grimy, shaggy-haired Colin Farrell almost fades out in deference to the hushed tone. The part-Indian, part-Swiss Q’orianka Kilcher, who was 15 or so when the film was made, does have a fresh, sprite-like quality, and she photographs in an offbeat way. August Schellenberg and the excellent Wes Studi are among the Indians skeptical of the Brits, while new Batman Christian Bale joins the film relatively late in the going. This isn’t an actors’ movie, however. Everyone on screen is at the service of Malick’s visual design.
Unfortunately, this is not enough to maintain interest. The romance has moments of absolute sheer loveliness, but they float around aimlessly within the flaccid telling of paradise lost. The European destruction of the Native Americans’ natural world has been told so many times that it needs some new reason for being. Perhaps Malick’s love story is supposed to be that new reason, but it’s not enough.
Of course, I am talking about a 150-minute version of the movie screened for the press and released in New York and L.A. in early December. The version that opens today is a sort of stopgap cut lasting 135 minutes—yet this is not the completed film. That will be on DVD, where Malick will restore “The New World” to a three-hour length. Maybe that long version will be a revelation—but if that’s the real vision of the director, why can’t we see it now?
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.