Tuesday, February 07, 2006

"New World" sings, even if Pocahontas doesn't


directed and written by Terrence Malick
starring Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer

Terrence Malick’s “The New World” is hypnotic, in every sense of the word. Any viewer may be easily transfixed by its mesmerizing beauty—or bored senseless by its slow, meandering, dreamlike pace, its meditative silence punctuated only by pensive voice-overs, snatches of otherworldly music (courtesy of Wagner, Mozart, and James Horner), and brief intervals of dialogue. Put another way, those who go see this film because it’s by the famously non-prolific Malick (his last directorial effort was 1998’s “The Thin Red Line”) are by far the most likely to enjoy it, while those looking for a hot action-romance starring Colin Farrell are guaranteed to be the most disappointed bunch of moviegoers since the idiots who went to see “Solaris” because of George Clooney’s ass. As for those who take the children expecting a live-action version of Disney’s “Pocahontas,” well, they deserve exactly the reaction they’re likely to get: restless, squirmy (or, if they’re lucky, sleepy) kids.

“The New World” is nothing if not cinematic, but it feels more like a poem than a movie. Although it’s based on the Pocahontas story, set against the backdrop of the early years of the Jamestown colony, Malick clearly isn’t interested in historical accuracy so much as the genesis of myth—specifically, the myth of the founders and their first encounter with virgin America. The Indian princess (played by newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher, cousin to Jewel) is a pointed metaphor for the virgin land, while her two British lovers, John Smith (Farrell) and John Rolfe (Christian Bale) present two different faces, or phases, of colonialism.

The subjugation of the new world isn’t portrayed as a rape, exactly, though there’s a deliberate violence in the film’s depiction of the colonists’ early efforts to shape the land to their will, from the first bite of an axe into a tree to a clearing full of stumps that wears the desolate, faintly obscene air of a scene of carnage. Malick also draws an unsparing visual contrast, by juxtaposition, of the magnificent bodies and idyllic forest glades occupied by the “naturals,” as they’re dubbed early on (later to give way to “savages”), with the clunky, confining armor of the colonists and the squalid, festering hole that is the Jamestown stockade in its early years. But the most obvious stand-in for the imposition of “civilization” on the wilderness—the life and loves of Pocahontas—is presented with considerably more ambivalence.

Kilcher has the face of a South American idol brought to life, and a rare presence that belies her youth: though she was less than fifteen during filming, you’d hardly guess it from her amazing poise or the timeless quality of her beauty. It’s no wonder that Smith idealizes this luminous underaged creature in his moony voice-overs, or that their romance has an oddly chaste yet charged feel. Farrell, for his part, effectively conveys the haunted eyes and inner conflict of a man capable of betraying and abandoning his love. He tries instead to put her from him, to evade the reminder of his culpability, but it is already too late. By the time Smith exits his dream-girl’s life, seemingly forever, she has become a captive of the society he helped bring: she's even started to wear its clothes, from corsets to buckled shoes, which never cease to look stiff and unnatural on her. (Though why on her and not on the European ladies raises an interesting question about cultural conditioning.)

It’s at this point, however, that “The New World” takes a subtle turn, as Englishman number two, John Rolfe, enters the scene. A planter rather than a soldier, Rolfe belongs to the second wave of colonists, who bear the burden of cultivating rather than despoiling. He cultivates and courts Pocahontas, now christened Rebecca, with the gravity of a man wise enough not to presume too much too quickly, and radiates a solidity and permanence that the adventurer never did. Perhaps it’s just the weight of history, but it feels inevitable that, in due course, she marries and begets a son by him, even though her heart still pines after her first love. Towards the end of the film, America’s first official interracial couple journeys to England so that young Mrs. Rolfe may be presented at court. Still attired in those ridiculous English clothes, Pocahontas finds herself feted and treated as a kind of seventeenth-century celebrity—or, depending on your perspective, a traveling circus exhibit, along with the natives who also accompany her.

Which is it? At court, she is seen examining a beautiful caged bird that looks only slightly less out of place than herself. But Malick is far too canny a filmmaker to settle for such a facile equation, and Pocahontas ultimately comes across less as a spoil or prisoner of colonialism than as a peculiar hybrid of Old World and New. Shortly thereafter, she is shown running through a perfect English garden with her child, looking radiantly happy. And that child remains the final symbol of “The New World,” the true hybrid of outsider and native, the cross-pollination of conqueror and conquered. Some may feel that concluding on this note elides the violence and treachery that compelled such a union and continued notwithstanding it. In fact, most of the film is devoted to showing the devastating effects of this clash, albeit with a certain aestheticized detachment that sometimes borders on emotional hollowness. In any case, the ending is hardly rosy: despite her seeming contentment and acceptance of her fate, Pocahontas dies tragically young. What she leaves behind is not harmony or peace, but a myth of origin—the origin of America, in all its tainted, pied beauty.



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