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Terrence Malick Retrospective Part 4: The New...

10 Aug 2011
Our journey ends as Malick’s The Tree of Life finally makes its debut at Cannes with a look at his fourth film as director – The New World.
After taking some two decades off in the wake of completing Days of Heaven, it was a mere seven years between the release of Oscar nominated The Thin Red Line and The New World. It was a project Malick had been circling for some time, based on a screenplay begun in the 70’s.

It loosely follows the story of Pocahontas, mixing fact and fiction to tell a tale of pioneers discovering new lands and the inevitable conflict with the native people. Initially, it is told through the lens of John Smith (Colin Farrell) a man who comes to this undiscovered country in chains and, through a series of events, finds himself freer than he has ever been as a prisoner of the natives.

Smith falls in love with the chief’s daughter (Q'orianka Kilcher) and she can’t help but be drawn to this strange man. She helps him to embrace a simpler way of living, a slower pace which gives him time to actually see the world for what it is. But naturally it isn’t long before the English come to reclaim their own.

The New World is an undoubtedly languorous experience, even in its 135 minute theatrical cut and certainly in its extended, 174 minute form. But again, Malick’s films are about tone and texture and perhaps never more so than in this feature – where the sense of a truly new and unspoiled country is evoked. This feeling is accentuated by the authenticity of the production – everything from the props to the clothes were handmade in a contemporary fashion, locations were chosen as close to the real sites as possible and cast members even learned an extinct Native American dialect.

The Oscar nominated cinematography by the masterful Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men) is key to the experience, aided by a set of rules drafted up with Malick which included shooting only with available light and without crane or dolly shots. The result is a unique, almost documentary style, which nonetheless conjures up the breathtaking imagery we’ve come to expect from Malick’s films.

Voice over and natural imagery again take centre stage in The New World but it’s fitting to the pace of the film and the top drawer cast is still given plenty of room to make an impression. I still maintain that Farrell is a talented actor who is given too few opportunities in dramatic roles. He’s understated and sincere here as Smith, adjusting to the rhythms of the slow narrative with ease. He’s joined by the marvelous Christopher Plummer looking every bit the pioneer and ably supported by character actors like David Thewlis and Noah Taylor. It’s Bale who comes off worst here in a role that makes little use of his more melodramatic skills while praise was rightly heaped on the naturalistic performance 14 year old Kilcher.

With the wealth of period details, stunning photography and impressive performances, it’s easy to get swept away by the experience of watching The New World. Although it’s an undoubtedly contemplative film, it remains accessible due to the familiarity of much of the story and is a must watch for fans of the filmmaker.

On the 16th of May 2011, Terrence Malick’s fifth feature film The Tree of Life premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, going on to win the coveted Palme d’Or. After many delays and some major disagreements over international release dates (which saw UK and Ireland rights yanked from distributors Icon), the critical reaction has been good, if predictable, so far. Imagery is again to the fore, including a much discussed sequence which traces the evolution of life over millennia – representing Malick’s first proper flirtation with extensive CG. It’s nothing if not ambitious and we can’t wait to check it out for ourselves.