This, Terrence Malick's fourth feature in more than thirty years, was not released with the same fanfare that his 1998 The Thin Red Line received. But then, a mere seven years passed between that film and The New World, whereas Thin Red Line was his first work in two decades.
It's too bad, because while I liked Thin Red Line, it was at times a clumsy, muddled film, where Malick, perhaps aware of the pressure to produce something great after such a long absence and two much-loved features (Badlands and Days of Heaven), overreached. The New World, by contrast, is a far more concise and affecting work, and deserved more widespread attention. (It did wind up on most film critics' top ten lists for 2005.)
Malick's characteristically poetic take on the oft-told story of Native American princess Pocahontas (newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher), her fabled romance with explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell), and her crucial role in the survival of Jamestown, Virginia, the first English settlement in North America, doesn't just present its heroine as a symbol of the new world's virgin paradise, but as a complicated woman who - because of her love for Smith - almost single-handedly opened the door to English colonization... and the rest is history.
Malick's lyrical style - jump cuts, long silences, lingering cutaway shots of trees and grass, and almost embarrassingly intimate voiceovers spoken by the characters - may not be for everybody, but you can't deny the sheer gorgeousness of Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography (supposedly he shot it all with natural light), and even the doubters will find it hard to remain unmoved by the final act, where the tragedy of Pocahontas's life comes to light as she quietly resigns herself to the English settlers' destruction of her land and her people, as well as to the emptiness in her heart after losing Smith. It's heavy stuff, and yet it's too richly presented to be written off as simply depressing.
Kilcher is extraordinary in her debut. Shouldered with an emotionally complex role as one of history's most famous women, she not only carries it off, she becomes the soul of the film. As for Farrell, I must say, he has such an irritating off-camera personality that I wasn't even sure he could act. (It doesn't help that he usually picks lousy projects.) But I was very much surprised by the soulfulness of his performance here. His other movies may soon be forgotten (indeed, most already are), but if The New World is what he'll be remembered for, he's a lucky actor.
Again, while the film is not for everybody, I found it an incredible experience - beautiful, haunting, and important. Say what you will, Terrence Malick - even with only four features to his name - remains one of American cinema's most distinctive voices, and I hope he has time to tell one or two more stories before he leaves this earth.