The New World presents the founding of the Virginia colony at Jamestown in 1607 and the evolution of its savior, Pocahontas, from Indian princess to British tobacco-grower's wife, as a trip though a time tunnel. It's both disorienting and revelatory, and, in the end, quite wonderful.
In his sometimes maddening and resolutely idiosyncratic manner, the writer-director, Terrence Malick, sensitizes viewers to rough-hewn textures, the living filigree of flora and fauna, and the different ways opposite communities of English and Indians take in everything from strangers to sunlight. His methods are more tactile than dramatic. He ignores the clarity and the pleasures of storytelling; instead, he surrounds his players in a dense sensory environment. But the happy result in The New World is that a viewer can experience a shift in history with the skin-prickling directness of a change of season.
Luckily, thanks to performers like Q'Orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas) and Christian Bale (her husband, John Rolfe), the virtues and aspirations of the characters spill out as if from some magic horn of plenty. Even Colin Farrell, as John Smith, conjures a depressed yet mulish strength.
Malick depicts Smith and Pocahontas as lovers, though in real life they were not amorously attached (she was 11 in 1607). Yet the movie makes good use of their fictional affair. It illuminates Smith's despair and desire for escape as he struggles to sustain a starving, clueless group of colonists, and it helps account for Pocahontas' painful, gratifying development of a European consciousness.
And the key love story here is between Pocahontas and Rolfe, who envelops her in sympathy, appreciation and concern. Ultimately, the picture is more Pocahontas' than Smith's. He must go seeking the East Indies to prove himself. She renews every world she enters.
The way Malick shoots movies, his cameras whirl around as his actors pick through underbrush and attempt to forge an emotional reality. But this time, with an inspirational team of collaborators, including production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Jacqueline West, Malick achieves a spontaneous, expressive choreography. The major figures on both the English and Indian sides emerge in bold, clashing perspectives against a parade of supporting players who register as a protean chorus.
With a handful of scenes, Christopher Plummer makes his presence felt as the manipulative Captain Newport, who punishes Smith for mutinous acts, then promotes him, and then simply goes back to England for a better grade of supplies and followers when his first batch disappoints him. He's no better than Smith at controlling Englishmen who shoot and kill "the naturals" for insufficient reasons. But Newport uses his access to the Crown to buttress his position and ultimately to rid himself of Smith when the soldier outlives his usefulness.
The collision of Newport's Christian culture and the communal paganism of Chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg) has never been rendered more intensely than with Malick's images of tribesmen eyeballing and sniffing the invaders, and tapping on their armor. And rarely has the course of war, compromise and reconciliation been rendered as persuasively as it is in the scenes of Powhatan's camp. As the English struggle to gain a toehold, the Indians divide over whether to view them as potential threats to be eliminated -- the advice of Powhatan's wily war chief, Opechancanough (Wes Studi) -- or curiosities to be studied, or weaklings to be pitied and educated in the ways of the wilderness.
When Smith, seeking a golden city to replenish his settlement, runs smack into Opechancanough, only to be saved by Pocahontas, these dual acts of aggression and compassion register as the birth pangs of a nation.
Farrell's Smith is at his best wrestling with the Indians and delighting in their all-for-one, one-for-all high jinks. He's like a squat, bearded, brooding Peter Pan. Kilcher makes it easy to comprehend why Pocahontas would be hard for him to resist. She's like the ancestral spirit of Isadora Duncan, in breechcloth, furs and buckskins. Whether she's doing cartwheels or playing hide and seek in the tall grass, her gestures are unstudied and original. And Kilcher's performance actually strengthens after Powhatan throws her out of his camp and the English take her as a hostage.
From pointy shoes to pointy collar, her household garb may function as a full-body straitjacket, but her sensibility gradually takes hold of her new identity. The dual traumas of living in Jamestown and losing Smith (who wants her to think he's dead) level her, then open her up. And she and Rolfe share a tentative rapport that's ultimately heartrending.
The trip she and Rolfe and Opechancanough take to England rounds off and crowns the entire movie. The sight of Studi's stark, glowering figure navigating topiary gardens has the bite of the best science fiction, as well as the same message: that we're all both human and alien to each other. And when Pocahontas tells Rolfe he's the man she thought he was, and more, she makes it a grand summation of marital love. Despite its haphazard rhythms and longueurs, The New World achieves an emotional payoff unlike anything else in Malick's work. It's all you think his movies are, and more.
The New World (New Line Cinema). Starring Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale and Wes Studi. Directed by Terrence Malick. Rated PG-13. Time 136 minutes.