Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Starring: Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, August Schellenberg, Wes Studi, David Thewlis, Yorick van Wageningen, Ben Mendelsohn, Noah Taylor
Country: USA, UK
Running Time: 172 / 150 / 135 min
Terrence Malick is a director who’s had an unusual career. He made two well-regarded films in the 70s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, before completely dropping off the cinematic map for two decades. He returned in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, which again was largely acclaimed by critics. Malick didn’t rest on his laurels for quite as long after this though, writing and directing The New World seven years later in 2005. This received much more divided opinion between critics and financially it was a bit of a flop. However, Malick closed the gap a little more after this and released The Tree of Life in 2011, to great critical acclaim, winning the Palme d’Or. After this, Malick went into relative overdrive, directing five features in the following 9 years.
This more recent string of Malick’s films has not been held in the same high regard as his first few though (at least before 2019’s A Hidden Life, which seems to be getting a lot of love). This has added numbers to the group of people not entirely convinced by the director’s style, ultimately taking the shine off a once-legendary figure in American cinema. He’s become something of a ‘Marmite’ director now (non-Brits might need to look this one up), with some lapping up his unique style and others finding it pretentious and meandering. I tend to lean towards the former, though I must admit I’ve avoided his post-Tree of Life work due to the poor reviews, so have only seen half of his films.
The New World is also one that had passed me by along the way due to its lukewarm reception when released. However, over the years, people have spoken up for the film and it’s been named one of the best of its decade in a few places. One reason for this might be that The New World has undergone some changes over the years.
Malick first screened a 150-minute cut of the film to critics in December 2005, so that it would be eligible for awards season that year. However, the producers felt it was too long, so Malick and his team of editors went back into the edit suite to deliver a 135-minute version to be screened to the general public. This was the version that bombed at the box-office but, somewhere along the way, Malick was offered the chance to extend the film once again for home release. Rather than just re-release the 150-minute cut though, Malick took it upon himself to make a more expressive spin on the material, creating a 172-minute version of the film.
This extended cut of The New World has been available on DVD and Blu-ray before, but now Criterion are releasing a comprehensive set, including all three versions of the film, the longest of which is presented in a new 4K remastered print. The package is also filled out with Criterion’s usual array of supplemental features and a book. Scroll to the bottom of the page to find out more about the discs and extras, but first I’ll give my thoughts on the film itself.
The New World tackles the part-historical, part-legendary story of Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher, who’s never actually to referred to as Pocahontas in the film, other than in the credits) and Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell). The latter arrives on American shores with the crew of three British ships, who aim to build a colony there. They set up a camp, which grows to become Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.
Running low on supplies, Smith leads a group to trade with the local natives. He gets captured by the Powhatan tribe, whose chief (August Schellenberg) is set to kill him. The chief’s daughter, Pocahontas, saves Smith though and he is allowed to live with the tribe as their prisoner. During this time, he grows close to the people and especially close to Pocahontas.
When Smith is allowed to go back to Jamestown, on the promise that the English will leave in spring, he finds it in dire straits. Low on food and disease-stricken, the inhabitants murder Wingfield (David Thewlis), who has been in charge, and Smith is made governor. He struggles to improve matters during the winter, but Pocahontas and the Powhatan tribe come to their aid, bringing food and warm clothes and blankets.
When the Powhatan chief realises the English will not be leaving in spring, however, as well as the fact his daughter helped them, he banishes her from the tribe and launches an attack on Jamestown. Struggling against the natives, the English believe their best bet is to take Pocahontas prisoner and use her to trade for peace and the return of some of their soldiers. Smith opposes this, but is stripped of his status as governor and the plan goes ahead.
The pair continue their love affair whilst she’s kept in the settlement, but Smith is soon sent on a voyage of further discovery in the north of the country. Ashamed by his lies and actions to Pocahontas and her people, he tells someone to tell her that he died on the journey. This leads Pocahontas into a state of depression, but she eventually finds solace in the arms of John Rolfe (Christian Bale). She doesn’t love him in the same way she loved Smith, but Rolfe talks her into marriage and a more European way of life. When the couple takes a trip to England, however, Pocahontas learns that Smith is still alive.
My quite lengthy synopsis might suggest this is a more narrative-led film from the typically free-flowing Malick. However, his usual style is very much still evident. People often talk about Malick’s beautiful visuals and poetic voiceover (both of which I’ll get to later), but his editing style is perhaps more unique. Disinterested in linear storytelling, Malick intercuts key plot-forwarding scenes with shots and lines that fit thematically or emotionally, if not narratively. This style is particularly notable here as you can sense his boredom with telling a story in the way key scenes in the narrative are often cut short before they’re finished, his viewpoint wandering off in a different direction. It can be disorientating and is one of the reasons many find Malick’s work messy or difficult. I wouldn’t totally disagree with that, though it’s also part of what makes his films special.
Malick is a poet and philosopher, rather than a storyteller. He likes to set a scene then explore it through imagery and the inner-thoughts of his protagonists. This leads to a, shall I say, ‘flowery’ approach that won’t be for everyone, but can be utterly intoxicating and fascinating if you allow it to seep in.
I find myself quite torn on Malick’s direction in this way. I love his visual style. Malick’s work with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki here is magnificent. What’s all the more impressive is that Malick has a very organic way of shooting. He grabs anything and everything he sees that captures his imagination, leading to an awful lot of footage and sequences that aren’t as carefully planned out as they might be in the hands of other directors. Malick and Lubezki have a particularly keen eye for their surroundings though, producing astonishingly beautiful images of nature and man’s place among it. The Native Americans are at one with their surroundings and move with freedom and expression. The English turn their patch of land into dirt and decay, then eventually order and discipline. This is all portrayed visually, through the photography and editing.
However, I’m not a massive fan of Malick’s outwardly poetic approach to voiceover. I’m not particularly into literary poetry myself, which is part of the problem, but I often find the meandering fragments of prose that litter the soundtrack distracting. In my opinion, Malick’s stunning visual poetry is enough in itself.
This grievance isn’t enough to put me off the film entirely though. Some of the narration can be quite beautiful and the rest of the film is strong enough to make up for it anyway. On top of the gorgeous imagery, you have some fine performances, most notable being Kilcher as Pocahontas. She’s positively radiant, with a natural warmth and expressiveness that makes it easy to understand how Smith and Rolfe fall so madly in love with her. What’s particularly impressive about this, is the fact she was only 14 at the time of production. Knowing this makes the relationships a little uncomfortable perhaps but, to be fair, it’s believed that Pocahontas was, in reality, even younger than that and Malick never takes things into sexually explicit territories. Reportedly they were trying to find an older actress for the part, but nobody could compare to Kilcher in the casting process after they saw her audition.
The period detail is impressive too. Malick is great at evoking the atmosphere of his settings, with his roaming camera and focus on scenery. He had his crew create a full replica of Jamestown and the native camp, as he didn’t want to restrict shots to certain angles. This allowed the actors the freedom to move in and around the spaces and really feel a part of them. It adds authenticity to an otherwise romantic retelling of the story and the setting is so well captured it draws the audience into it too. This is one of the reasons that, although the film is long and I found some of the voiceover tiresome, I easily sat through the near-three hour film in one sitting and could have gladly stayed in the world longer.
Overall then, it’s a spellbindingly beautiful visual poem about love, discovery and man’s relationship with nature. It both benefits and suffers from some of its director’s traits. However, even when it gets too lyrical for its own good, I was mesmerised by its grace and artistry. Malick makes divisive films but even if I could pick flaws I always find myself totally absorbed in them and The New World is no different.
The New World is out on 14th December on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. There are three versions of the film in the set, all on separate discs. These are the 172-minute extended cut, the 135-minute theatrical cut and the 150-minute first cut. Interestingly, the transfers are all different. The extended cut reportedly had Malick’s supervision (as well as Lubezki, who looked over all the cuts) and comes from a new 4K restoration, as opposed to the HD transfers on the other two. So, as you’d expect, this is the best-looking version. It looks incredible, rich in detail, tone and colour (as well as boasting pristine audio). I’m no expert though, so I’d advise you to head over to DVD Beaver to see a more detailed comparison of the versions – http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film5/blu-ray_reviews_72/the_new_world_blu-ray.htm
Special features include:
– New 4K digital restoration of the 172-minute extended cut of the film, supervised by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Terrence Malick and featuring material not released in theatres, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-rays
– High-definition digital transfers of the 135-minute theatrical cut and the 150-minute first cut of the film, supervised by Lubezki, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on the Blu-rays
– New interviews with actors Colin Farrell and Q’orianka Kilcher
– New program about the making of the film, featuring interviews with producer Sarah Green, production designer Jack Fisk, and costume designer Jacqueline West
– Making “The New World,” a documentary shot during the production of the film in 2004, directed and edited by Austin Jack Lynch
– New program about the process of cutting The New World and its various versions, featuring interviews with editors Hank Corwin, Saar Klein, and Mark Yoshikawa
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: A book featuring an essay by film scholar Tom Gunning, a 2006 interview with Lubezki from American Cinematographer, and a selection of materials that inspired the production
Having the three cuts is the big draw, but the supplemental features are also excellent. ‘Making “The New World”’ is a feature-length, largely fly-on-the-wall documentary that’s fantastic. It shows in great detail the incredible amount of work that went into making the film authentic and how Malik’s unique techniques worked. He’s completely absent though, as he is through the rest of the disc (and on the discs for all his films, as far as I’m aware).
The new ‘making of’ piece is also very good. This focuses largely on production and costume design, but given the detailed period nature of the film, it’s fascinating to hear how much thought went into it.
I find Colin Farrel is always an interesting person to see in special features and here is no different. In candid footage he swears constantly and talks frankly, in line with his wild tabloid persona. However, in the interviews you realise he’s an incredibly intelligent and eloquent speaker. His piece with Q’orianka Kilcher is great, delving into what it was like starring in this unique film.,
The editors’ featurette is fantastic too. It’s honest and informative, talking in detail and candour about their techniques and how the team worked together, as well as with Malick. There’s a separate piece on the multiple versions too, which shows a number of side-by-side comparisons, as well as discussing generally how they differ and why they were made.
I wasn’t provided with a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.
It’s a wonderful set, that comes highly recommended to any fans of the film and director.