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January 11-17, 2006

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The New World

Pioneering: Colin Farrell plays Capt. John Smith in Terrence Malick's ode to a primeval world.

Brave New World

Terrence Malick's sweeping yet sensitive epic finds new wonder in 'The New World'

By Richard von Busack

THERE IS A fantasy that united two literary minds—F. Scott Fitzgerald and Joseph Conrad—that also seems to have appealed to Terrence Malick in The New World. Conrad and Fitzgerald imagined the cities of London and New York as they once were: forested shores on primeval rivers through which one could perceive the glitter of eyes and the leaf-shaped tips of spears.

Conrad, at the beginning of Heart of Darkness: "Imagine ... the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke ... nothing but Thames water to drink ... here and there a military camp lost in the wilderness ... death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush." And Fitzgerald on North America in The Great Gatsby: "For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

The New World has a simple romantic plot, with three different narrators. The film tells of Pocahontas' love for Capt. Smith (Colin Farrell), a roguish soldier who can't and won't stay. In 1607, the settler and the princess met after he was sent by his superiors on a suicide mission to the court of Powhatan (August Schellenberg). As the world knows—if only from the silly Disney version—she saved him from being clubbed to death by order of her father.

At first Powhatan's men feed the English in their fort to save them from death. Then, when it becomes clear that they are staying, Powhatan tries to drive them away. Smith himself is eventually forced to leave on another voyage. The loss almost kills Pocahontas (played by Q'Orianka Kilcher, the daughter of a native Peruvian, a Quecha/Huachapaeri). Later, she finds a kind of contentment with an older man she doesn't love—the gentle planter John Rolfe (Christian Bale). Rolfe's presence changes her; she learns the Western ways of locks and corsets and the alphabet. Finally, there is a reconciliation when she voyages to the land her Capt. Smith came from.

The surprise is that Malick doesn't make the obvious contrast—honest green new world vs. treacherous gray old one. In Malick's version, the princess is an adventurer who longs to see the entire world. And Malick takes all the punk out of Farrell, who opens himself up to the camera as he never has before. The lovers have the right kind of innocence.

Malick's "capacity for wonder" is startling. But he seems almost hindered by words—at least the part of his dialogue not written in Algonquin. Logic rebels against the slight hippy-dippery, the residue of a script written very soon after the 1960s. "These people know no envy, no hatred," Smith observes. Yes, but they do have the death penalty, as he seems to have forgotten.

The dialogue sounds like phrases from interior monologues, with three dots on each side: "... love ... shall we deny it when it visits us? ... " Avoiding the pidgin-dialect of movie Indians, Malick went for Khalil Gibran.

The director's words are as hesitant as his images are eloquent. He endows fresh water with all due sacredness; here, too, are his typically voluptuous shots of the wind combing the grasses (as in his Badlands and Days of Heaven).

And Malick pauses to enjoy the grace of animals—watching the massive head of a red-furred ox as it strides across the screen. The muddy stockade, with starvation hanging in the air, the child soldiers staring into the eyes of a visitor and the lambent freshness of Pocahontas in her torn buckskins—all look idealized but possible. And the frost of youthful acne on the princess's shoulders spares her from looking like a Land O'Lakes Butter box.

Malick is not a fan of violence. The short, brutal skirmishes and the rescue of Smith by Pocahontas are so speeded up they look like "scenes from next week's episode." Such delicacy is, here at least, an asset.

The acting is lucid and unshowy against the almost haloed landscapes. Christopher Plummer delivers shrewd cold notes as the commander of the colonists. At the moment of first contact, Opechancanough (Wes Studi) noses the English soldiers. He turns away in sharp disgust, exclaiming at their stink, letting out a shouted gobble of speech so loud that it makes you jump.

Malick is a great filmmaker, which means he pushes the edge of ridiculousness, out of the passions that drive him. Though he's in love with simplicity, he's not unsophisticated. (He marks a glint of possessiveness in Rolfe's face when he finally manages to get Pocahontas in marriage.) And in this lavish yet never cheaply decorative epic, Malick has thought out what the New World means. Its legacy is the idea of freedom from the old hierarchy. The Americas sooner or later destroyed the absolutism of the crown and the church—and gave Shakespeare words, too: "O brave new world ..." Today's New World Order is not what these dreamers had in mind. But The New World offers a vision of simplicity and harmony that may yet overturn the absolutism of the power-mad.

Movie Times The New World (PG-13; 150 min.), directed and written by Terrence Malick, photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki and starring Colin Farrell and Q'Orianka Kilcher, opens Jan. 20.

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