Monday, January 23, 2006

The New World

John Smith spends most of The New World wondering around with his mouth open as if he is trying to figure out what just happened. After seeing the movie I know just how he felt.

According to reports, director Terrence Malick works by shooting lots of improvised scenes, then decides on a plot during editing. That would explain a lot of the movie. It doesn't flow, it moves in fits and starts, sometimes disjointed. For example, a battle between the colonists and the Indians seems to start over three times with the colonists losing each time. We have no idea how the colonists survived. Occasional voice-overs inform us what is happening. In most cases the accompanying visuals are unrelated. For example, at the end we are told that Pocahontas has died. This is followed by a shot of an empty bed, trees, and Pocahontas splashing in a pool.

The real Smith was a shameless self-promoter. Colin Farrell's version is quiet and introspective. We are a half hour into the movie before he says anything (not counting voice-overs). Things just happen to him. He is told to lead an expedition to find Powhaten. He is captured and armed warriors appear with clubs raised. Pocahontas saves him and spends lots of time wandering through the wilderness with him. He returns to Jamestown and a couple of malcontents make him president. In his one act of assertiveness, he orders a well to be dug. When he declines to take Pocahontas prisoner he is unelected (Jamestown not only had secret ballots, they seem to have had secret elections). Later he is told that the King has ordered him to map New England and he is told to go fufill his ambition.

The focus shifts to Pocahontas who has been disowned and no longer has a name because she helped the English (strangely no one ever says "Pocahontas"). Smith left orders that she be told he died a couple of months after he left. She takes an English name and starts wearing dresses. John Rolf courts her and she has a child with him. (Very quickly - she manages to go from holding Rolf's hand to playing with a baby in one scene change.) Through it all she still mourns for Smith.

Rolf and Pocahontas are summoned to England where she meets Smith again and realizes that she loves Rolf. Then she dies.

The high point of the movie is the cinematography. The wilds of Virginia are shown in all their glory. Extra credit goes to the movie for actually filming near Jamestown. The costumes are good, except for Smith's grey shirt, and the sets satisfied Jamestown's chief archeologist.

At 2 1/2 hours, the movie could improved by drastic cuts. One friend commented that he had never seen a movie shot in real time before. Even at that, the movie is fifteen minutes shorter than what premiered in December. Another half hours of cuts, some tightening up of the plotline, and it might not be half-bad.

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