Monday, April 18, 2011

An epic beginning (some thoughts on The New World)

I've been revisiting The New World, director Terrence Malick's 2005 impressionistic retelling of the John Smith/Pocahontas story. More specifically I've been watching the nearly 3-hour extended cut on Blu-ray. This is the way to see this film! Malick explores some of the same themes explored in the smash hit Avatar, but without the heavy-handedness of James Cameron. I don't see The New World as a masterpiece in the same way that Malick's first three features are, primarily because the casting of Colin Farrell as Captain John Smith never quite clicks. He just looks too much the part of what he actually is, which is an A-list Hollywood bad boy, and one of the sexiest men in the world (so I've been told). I wonder if the part would have been better served by a lesser-known actor? For instance, someone like Ben Chaplin or Jim Caviezel, both of whom were terrific in Malick's previous film The Thin Red Line. In my opinion the picture gets better once Farrell exits the stage about two thirds of the way through.

The last hour is perfect. Once Smith is sent off on other adventures we're introduced to another model of maleness in the compassionate John Rolfe, played effectively by Christian Bale. If Malick casts Smith and Pocahontas as Adam and Eve, the love story between Rolfe and the now-Christianized Powhatan princess "Rebecca" is more like Boaz and Ruth. Malick knows his Old Testament so I doubt the allusions are accidental. Upon her acceptance of his proposal for marriage he promises: "You do not love me now. Someday, you will." Though lacking the dash and romance of Smith, he proves to be the more enduring lover. Eventually he'll take her to England to see the King.

The New World begins with as stirring an opening as any movie has ever had. The choice of a piece by Richard Wagner (the Prelude from Das Rheingold) as the accompaniment to the English landing beautifully evokes the epic nature of this initial meeting of civilizations. In one sense it's like a discovery of Eden, in another it's paradise lost. Turn up your speakers for this one.

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