To celebrate the debut of Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winning film, The Tree of Life, Cinémezzo, with the help of some guest contributors, is taking a look back at his four features Badlands; Days of Heaven; The Thin Red Line; and The New World, all of which contain in their sounds and images the ebb and flow of life and time.
With some critics describing it as epic, magical and profound and others dismissing it as ponderous and dull, The New World is Terrence Malick’s most critically divisive film. Coupled with an underwhelming worldwide box office of $30 million (just about breaking even) it’s safe to say that this didn’t have universal audience appeal, either. For those expecting a live action adaptation of Disney’s Pocahontas, they would have been met with a film constructed around minimal dialogue, and one in which John Smith disappears two thirds of the way through and Pocahontas dies off-screen. Yet for those who do fall under its spell, they fall fast and hard, losing themselves in the lyricism and poetry of Malick’s New World.
If The Thin Red Line can be seen as Malick’s war poem in the vein of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, then The New World is “Malick does Romanticism”. The film’s heart beats to the same rhythm of Emerson, Thoreau and Keats. This is cinema as poetry: a thoughtful and moving meditation on the beginnings of America. The discovery and subsequent colonization of the continent has been the subject of art for hundreds of years. Czech composer Antonin Dvorak most notably wrote the magnificent New World Symphony (his 9th) which is filled with the hope, joy and excitement of moving to the US. For Dvorak, America represented the chance for fulfillment, freedom and a whole new life. Malick’s New World shares the same sense of wonder, yet it is mixed with the ugliness of colonialism and the tension between tradition and modernity. He is a true romantic, displaying a near pantheistic appreciation of nature and finding inspiration, beauty and truth within its forests and rivers.
Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezski shoots the film in a soft light, making great use of sunsets, light breaking through canopies and grass blowing in the wind. It is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful and visually satisfying films ever. Malick’s detractors say that his visuals are all the director is good for, but his films are far more than just a sequence of pretty pictures. Through the astonishingly gorgeous look of the film, he captures moments of true beauty, and epitomizes the recurring romantic theme of imagination in nature. Q’Orianka Kilcher, in an unforgettable debut role, plays the female lead (essentially Pocahontas although never named as such in the film) with a playful yet spiritual charm. In ‘America’ she hops and ducks through the long grass, imitating an animal: here in this setting, she is free, uninhibited and creative. When she moves to London, nature has either been concreted over – the port they arrive in is made up of bricks and glass – or tamed – even the trees are trimmed into uniform shapes. ‘Rebecca’ is stifled by her clothing and her location. Yet in one of the films most beautiful moments we see her cartwheeling along a river bank in her dress, upon the realization that she can be connected to nature anywhere, and through her family.
Taking this into account The New World, as with the best of Romantic poetry, is occasionally content to simply observe nature and be lost in its awe. Keat’s On The Sea suggests that one can be refreshed and rejuvenated simply by gazing for a while at the ocean, whilst Thoreau eulogizes about the ‘Spirit of lakes and seas and rivers’. There is a definite link between spirituality and nature in the New World, as seen through the rituals and language of Pocahontas, and on the change in character that Farrell’s John Smith undergoes during his time spent with the Native Americans. Once a mutineer and soldier clad in heavy armour, he is stripped down to his raw, base self, and in doing so engages with his emotions. Yet there is also some argument that many of the pleasures of The New World can be found in the simple aesthetic joy of gazing at wild, untouched nature. As the strains of Wagner’s prelude to Das Rheingold drift hauntingly in the background and the ships of the colonists sail into sight, one can fully understand Keats’ awe at the sight of the sea.
The amazing opening scene – the greatest ever, in my humble opinion – perfectly encapsulates many of the film’s themes, most notably that of the invasion of modernity and “civilization” on a world that was not necessarily asking for it. As Smith leaves to try and ask help from ‘the naturals’, Jamestown is nothing but a few poorly built huts and some failing farmland. When he returns from his long spell away, the town has walls, much stronger housing and the obvious intention of staying. Progress is coming, and fast. Yet at the same time, the settlers are starved, suicidal and mad, having failed to properly establish farmland or adapt to the environment they have barged into. Ultimately they rely on the help of those who are at one with nature – the natives give meat, furs and seed to the settlers (for the Brits reading this, this is in keeping with actual historical events). The message is clear: respect, love and embrace nature otherwise death follows, although it is possibly the death of creativity and inspiration.
If this all sounds too high brow or, dare I use the word, pretentious, then fear not. At the heart of the film is a powerful story told with all the skill of a master and an attention to historical accuracy that is almost unrivaled. This has values beyond it’s poetic musings, not least in the performances. Farrell, an actor who is incredible given the right director (another example would be Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges) is phenomenal here, his eyes expressing a wealth of emotion and his voiceover as hypnotic and thoughtful as one has come to expect from Malick. Kilcher matches and even surpasses this excellent performance, which is even more incredible considering she was fifteen at the time. The film also features Christian Bale’s finest hour, imbuing the final act with a tender poignancy that ends on a note of heartbreaking tragedy. Christopher Plummer, Wes Studi and David Thewlis all provide excellent support.
All this meshes together to create a film with characters that go beyond paragons and paramours, instead fleshing out real humans that you believe exist beyond the four walls of your screen. The deliberate pacing allows for real investment in the people of the New World, adding a palpable power to some of the film’s most emotional scenes. One of the highlights is a battle sequence (on a personal note, I first saw this film because it had a guy with a sword on the front cover, but found something entirely different to what I was expecting) which is shot in a typically Malickian way. Cut together with scenes of a concerned Pocahontas running towards the battlefield, and with some sections that happen almost entirely silently, this is not gritty realism but a more abstract approach to violence. Like the rest of the film it has a unique power that is both quiet and powerful.
Yet although the surface values of The New World are many and important, if you are willing to engage with the film on a deeper level then The New World acts as a modern day successor to the Romantic poets. Whilst it has numerous inspirations from philosophy, fine art and other writing (there is a nice comparison to be made with Yeats’ Lake Isle on Innisfree), the film feels like a work of poetry in its own right. This is a New Romanticism, adapting the themes and imagery of the poetry to create a work of art that inspires, awes and enchants. There is no other film like it, a true masterpiece of breathtaking beauty and unforgettable impact.
Nathanael Smith is a literature and history student in Scotland who really should be studying film. He writes for Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, and has on occasion considered starting his own blog but he always gets bored two weeks in. In June he will be covering Edinburgh International Film Festival for Hope Lies. He is very excited about this.