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The New World

Colin Farrell, Pocahontas and Me

The languid and almost heartbreakingly beautiful The New World is director Terrance Malick's latest foray into poetic moviemaking. In this film more than even his previous films (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), Malick has taken on the identity of a visual poet rather than a traditional filmmaker. He strings images together into visual stanzas: tall grass blowing with the whispering wind, rippling water occasionally broken by a feathered oar, the sky through a canopy of leaves. The dialogue, save for the voice-overs, at times seems extraneous, almost unnecessary. But the voice over work fits perfectly within the poetic setting. Questions of love and property and destiny are addressed in barely a whisper as the main characters float along, ghostlike, through the film.

Colin Farrell plays Captain John Smith, one of the original settlers of the Jamestown colony. He travels to America with an unknown cloud hanging over his head; he'd been in trouble in Europe and arrives in present-day Virginia with a chance at redemption. Those in charge of the infant Jamestown colony send Captain Smith on a mission to find food and explore, and he soon gets lost in the new landscape and is subsequently kidnapped by the Powhatan Indians. Just as the Powhatan Indians are about to kill him, the Powhatan Chief's favorite daughter Pocahontas (a stunning 14-year old newcomer named Q'Orianka Kilcher) begs her father to spare Smith. Thus begins the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas. They begin as teachers and learners of each others language and culture, but it's soon clear that they're on a collision course with love.

Which brings us to one of the central themes of the film. What is love? Is it possible -- is it ever possible -- for two people to experience that emotion on an equal plane? Or is love an object that is never to be held or looked at the same way by two different people; an individual experience that every human feels uniquely? Is it possible for two hearts ever to feel the same way?

Farrell loves Pocahontas for her innocence and beauty, but in the end, he chooses to forsake their love because he knows it will eventually destroy her. The love Pocahontas feels for Smith is different. She treats him as a sort of demigod and bases her salvation on his love. All the while she is losing her identity as the favorite daughter of her father and becoming Anglicized -- turning in her Indian dress for an English one, learning how to live indoors as the settlers do. Her tryst with Smith has indeed transformed her, whether he wanted it or not.

The third leg of the Jamestown Love Triangle is helmed by John Rolfe (Christian Bale), a tobacco farmer who shows up in Jamestown some time after Smith flees. Rolfe falls instantly for Pocahontas; his own wife has died and he wants the comfort of a woman in his family. This represents an entirely different kind of love, and eventually Pocahontas allows herself to feel for Rolfe; however, it is far different from the impassioned feelings she felt for Smith. And yet -- is it love that they share? How can one classify whether it is or not?

The nature of discover, love, and loss -- quite a thematic three-headed monster. It's a bit difficult to take in, especially given the fragile beauty of the film. Smith's love for Pocahontas consumes him and steers him off course. He believes his love for her will cause her harm, and cause the harm of her family and people. He is a man torn; you can see fear and self-doubt in Farrell's large dark eyes. As he is torn in love so is he torn in life; one moment he is living with and learning from the Powhatan Indians, in another, he is shooting at them from the Jamestown fort. The film weaves itself into a dreamlike fabric; time is out of joint, we're not really sure when things are happening or in what order.

Farrell is an actor that I could frankly live without, for the most part, so I was pleasantly surprised with the role he plays in The New World. Stoic and silent, devoid of the swagger he usually has in movies, his face expressed more than his words (again, with the exception of his voice-over monologues). He's perfect for the role of Captain Smith. And Kilcher, the young girl who plays Pocahontas, contains a magical earthy beauty that makes it impossible for us to imagine Smith not falling in love with her. She seems the embodiment of all that is pure and virginal about the land the English have "discovered". Her story is the story of the land.

Eventually Pocahontas is brought by Rolfe to England to visit with the royal court. Accompanying her is one of her father's trusted guards, another Indian, and there's no way to miss the parallel experience of these native North Americans seeing the bustle of urban London for the first time -- strangers in a strange land a la the settlers arriving in the virginal nature of America. Much like love, the spirit of discovery is a relative one.

The New World is certainly not a film for every moviegoer. For one thing, it's quite long. (Longer even than this review.) There are extended periods of time in which nothing actually happens, at least from a traditional cinematic point of view. But it's in these negative spaces that Malick gives us the space and breathtaking natural backdrop to ponder what's going on within these lofty themes he's constructed. Malick disciples will doubtlessly eat this film up, whether or not it's their favorite of his offerings. Those looking for an action-filled two and a half hours will be disappointed; as in many of Terrance Malick's movies, it's not really action that's important, it's natural beauty paired with internal rumination.

Stars: 4 out of 5 stars