The events of Terrence Malick’s “The New World” take place over a span of several years. The movie itself feels only slightly shorter. While Malick’s attention to natural and historical details is admirable, without the pizzazz of talking animals, fairy tale endings and Christina Aguilera’s acrobatic vocals, the familiar story of Pocahontas and John Smith falls flat.
Instead of a swash-buckling hero who makes his triumphant landing on the shores of Virginia, our protagonist begins the story literally in chains, imprisoned and nearly executed for mutiny. After John Smith is spontaneously pardoned, the intrepid colonists begin to set up camp and immediately encounter a tribe of body-painted “naturals” who poke and prod them, while an oddly masculine Indian princess cavorts in the background. As the story goes, the newly formed Jamestown colony quickly falls into despair while attempting to raise tobacco, so Captain Smith is sent — half martyr, half hero — to negotiate with the natives. While there, he is taken prisoner, the young Indian princess becomes taken with him, and they begin to play language games that combine charades, introductory language classes and Stockholm syndrome-style seduction. Things continue to devolve from here, as Smith returns to the struggling colony and tries to maintain order while hiding his lust for his seemingly lost Indian love.
And, through it all, the thoroughly Irish Colin Farrell, who plays Smith, summarily fails to mask his accent. Perhaps it should be counted as a blessing, then, that Farrell does not speak much at all; instead, Smith is transformed into a silent outsider with a perpetual pout.
It is not that the dialogue is simply flawed, rather that it is practically nonexistent. Instead, the film is dominated by long, uninterrupted and rarely subtitled scenes in the native language that alternate with awkward voice-overs representing Smith’s inner monologue without subtlety or revelation.
Nearly two hours into the film, Christian Bale appears — both unannounced and unnamed — to seduce the Indian princess while Smith is off exploring the Northern coast. It is a risky choice, at best, to introduce a character so late in the film, after the audience has almost certainly finished its popcorn and grown restless. The love affair between John Rolfe (Bale) and Pocahontas at first seems like a needless coda, but actually becomes one of the only coherent narrative strains in the entire movie.
It is almost understandable that, perhaps in some misguided attempt to distance the characters from their animated manifestations, the filmmakers do not refer to the Indian princess as Pocahontas or her domineering father as Powhatan, but refusing to give names to nearly all the characters is ultimately just confusing — especially since they are listed in the closing credits by their familiar names. Furthermore, by not naming any of the Indian characters, they seem to deny the “naturals” individual identities, instead lumping them together into one big body of modified non-European mass.
The film is, overall, filled with the usual sentimentality and ethnocentrism common in such works. The British colonists are sloppy, vulgar, greedy and ultimately victorious. In contrast, the natives are homogeneous and simple, frank and ingenuous, and are rarely able to muster any emotional complexity — although this could also be because the audience never knows what they’re saying when they speak their native language. We are instead forced to see the conflict through Smith’s biased narration, perpetuating the stereotypes that started as a way to rationalize the conquest but persist today.
After two hours and 15 minutes, the film is ultimately more like an extended montage than a coherent work. Despite beautiful, sweeping shots of unspoiled natural beauty, the cinematography is inexplicably plagued by quick cuts and mid-scene shifts that read more like a music video than an historical epic.
If we are asked to sit still for so long, is it really unfair to ask for something more than a director’s self-indulgent dive into an already familiar story, adding details and scenery but losing all the fun in the process? Malick wrote the script in 1970, and after waiting 36 years to realize it, both viewers and studio execs would probably have been happier if the project had stayed on the proverbial drawing board.