An appreciation of Terrence Malick’s ‘The New World’

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Terrence Malick films are best appreciated when your mind and surroundings are completely free of distractions. You don’t watch a Malick film to “pass time”. You watch it when you are in a mood for some serious introspection. And no one does introspection better than Malick. I have to confess I’m not the biggest Malick fan out there but I’ve been able to open-mindedly appreciate four of his films which are now among my favorites: The Thin Red Line, The New WorldBadlands, and Days of Heaven. And so, I don’t think I’ll be able to talk about his films as eloquently as some of his die-hard fans do.

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Anyway, I recently watched the extended Director’s Cut of The New World which rewarded me with an otherworldly experience unlike any other. I was struck by the spellbinding beauty of Malick’s visual poem. Like I’ve said before, you need to be in the right mood to appreciate this film. I’m not going to bore you with an in-depth analysis but instead, I would like to discuss the beauty of the film. In my view, this is easily one of Malick’s most accessible films. There is nothing here that is too incomprehensible. Sure, there are a lot of stunning and mesmerizing images but their meanings are not so hard to decipher. Everything is right there in front of you and you don’t have to strain so hard to look, unlike some of his later films.

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I’ve not seen any other filmmaker appreciate nature the way Malick does. This film is a voyage into uncharted territory. He presents nature at its absolute best and shows us something that we don’t get to see very often because we are so caught up in the hustle and bustle of our monotonous existence. The story, told in an almost non-linear fashion, at the heart of the film is an age old one – the love story of Pocahontas (although she is not called that here) and the Englishman Captain John Smith – and gives it a new twist. In completely re-imagining their story, Malick presents us with two opposite civilizations – the untarnished and fascinating land of the natives and the other, a gradually rotting and hellish encampment inhabited by Smith and his men.

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We are overwhelmed by a feeling of disgust when we see the latter but feel a great sense of relief and calm when we see the world of the natives. Malick bombards us with wave after wave of stunning images – all these accompanied by classical music – and he couldn’t have hired anyone better than master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose lensing in each film continues to awe us. We can feel every little detail – be it the sunrise, the sunset, the different seasons, rivers, snow, the chirping of birds, the ships and the fluttering of the sails etc. Pretty much every shot here can be framed and hung on the wall. The film was shot mostly – well, I think all of it – in natural light and it is hard to pinpoint even a single scene that was shot with artificial light.

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Malick also presents two moving love stories here: The first one between Pocahontas (played by Q’orianka Kilcher) and Smith (played by Colin Farrell) and the second between her and a tobacco farmer John Rolfe (played by Christian Bale). Farrell didn’t do too badly here and I thought he was an apt choice for his role, and so is Bale. But it is Kilcher who really shines here.  She was only 14 when she did this film. And I’m not a big fan of voice-overs but somehow it works here, I was surprised to note. The film feels like a lighter and less preachy extension of The Thin Red Line and explores some of its themes here as well. The New World is a fine example of pure visual storytelling.

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