The New World is enigmatic director Terrance Malick's first film for the 21st century (he seems to make a film only every decade or so). It is the story of the young Indian girl Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher), and by relation the story of John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the clashes between British settlers and American Indians. Is it a historical epic, or a nature film? It's a little of both, but really as unique a film experience as I have had in a long time.
In anyone else's hands, the story would have leaned to a grandiose epic, classically shot, with breathtaking set pieces, sweeping battles, ornate costumes, virtuous ideals, all the trappings. In Malick's hands, it's a personal film, dirty, sickly, grounded, shot with available light, handheld, jump cuts, voiceovers, discontinuous, jarrign, dream-like, with extended shots of landscapes of aching beauty. Farrell speaks with his natural accent, Kilcher really is 14 years old, and you get the real sense they spent long days in the dirt and wet and cold to get the feeling right. And for all the modern and avant guard technique, it feel as true to the time period as anything I have ever seen.
Morally, no one is right or wrong. Everyone suffers one tragedy or another. British and Indians fight at eye level, hacking each other up, and it's all senseless and comes across as so. There is no agenda, only honesty.
The film works on many levels. It has been called slow by some, but felt just right to my taste. The only failing to me was when the story took a wide right turn with forty minutes left, eventually landing in the aforementioned ornate and lustrous locales, and losing touch with the original tone. Yet, it was in the interests of wrapping up the story faithfully to history, so perhaps my beef is with history, and not with the film.
Time to check out everything Malick has ever directed. Have no fear, it's a short list.