Thursday, 5 August 2010

Why Does The Earth Have Colours?

With The Tree Of Life proving to be the most anticipated title of (insert any year from 2009 to 2056), I thought I may as well have me a little Terrence Malick fest. And a little fest it shall be - this is my second on here after Days Of Heaven, and that takes me to half of his released filmography as director. And I saw The Thin Red Line years ago, though I think I'll hit it up again. Leaving only Badlands to go.

So, which title could I possibly be talking about here? Well, considering there are so many to choose from, I'm going to stab and say The New World. Bullseye.

Pretty, huh? I don't normally find Colin pretty. But here? Pretty.

Considering the enormous gaps that can happen between Malick's films, and the fact that they are generally very good, the weight of expectation heaped on them can, I think, often be excessive. I think he fell prey to this weight with this, his fourth film. The reviews, when they came out, were decidedly mixed, though it's also worth remembering that the original version shown to critics is altered (and by a solid fifteen minutes of runtime, not to mention how the remaining footage might then have been changed) from that which was eventually released in cinemas. I personally loved the film, and I did go in with the expectation (there's that word again) that I would be quite disappointed, or at the very least underwhelmed. So there you go.

Malick, with his fourth film, tackles the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, incorporating the tale of Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell.) I must confess, I know absolutely nothing of this tale. I've never seen the animation, and I never studied much American history. If, prior to my watching this film, you had asked me who Pocahontas was, I would have been able to tell you that she was the main character in a Disney film and not much else. This may have made the whole thing fresher and therefore more easily digestible for me - perhaps those with fond recollections of the previous treatment of this legend do not appreciate Malick's wistful and sometimes scandalous, as well as somewhat mythically adapted retelling.

In a similar way to Days of Heaven, The New World doesn't attempt to engage the viewer through a true and dramatic narrative. Rather, it is again a film you feel your way through, you see your way through, rather than following the narrative checkpoints and emotional and character arcs. Malick's floating and drifting camera (masterfully utilised by the incredible Emmanuel Lubezki, who I will say again is criminally underrated, mentioned again here and here) seem to not lead the way through the jungle of the period, but rather happen upon important moments that allow you to piece together what is happening. It's almost like he's drifting about with a camera, shooting the sky, and every now and then he loses focus and the camera falls to the level of us mere mortals, and we happen to notice something important happening before the fascination returns to something beautiful near the tree tops, or in the reeds. But what you see is always so wonderfully informed, and matched by a fragmented yet touching voiceover that lets you totally inhabit the new and unknown world our characters are inhabiting.

The highs and lows of the Smith/Pocahontas relationship are mapped alongside the horrendous conditions surrounding the foundation of the town. Kilcher was oft talked about for Oscar, though she didn't really manage to pull through with anything particularly major despite a fantastic performance. But then again, no actor has ever managed an Oscar nod through Malick. Farrell wasn't even mentioned except in passing from what I remember, though he gives quite a solid performance. His role isn't overly dramatic, but it is always there and full of meaning - I think he pulled off a much bigger performance than he is given credit for. He has a lost and confused look in his eyes betraying the fear and discomfort he feels in the space he finds himself in. He is not a confident and fearless leader, he is in love but he is scared shitless, and he gives me all of that even whilst doing very little.

The cinematography was marvelous. Did I already mention that? Won't someone please clone Emmanuel Lubezki, raise one copy on a pedestal for all to admire and set the rest to work shooting every film they can? Please? Thanks.

The supports were all good as well, and I did really like seeing Ben Mendelsohn. I like seeing Ben. He's very good, you know. And, wait for it, a Christian Bale role that I liked. Another one! That's two Bale films in a row! (Though made many, many years apart...) I thought he was magnificently understated and very controlled, and very warm, very real. And those are not words I generally associate with Mr Bale. I was très impressed. Impressed enough to use French, no less.

James Horner's score, or what was left of it by the time Malick kept cutting and changing and cutting and changing, was really very good, and I'm not a huge fan of James Horner scores as a general rule. So that was nice.

I really liked the film. I might even go so far as to say loved. I did at the beginning, so why hold back here. It was a beautiful, moody look at history. It may not have been true, but who cares! It was touching, it was stunning, it was moving, and it kept me watching every second. 5 stars.

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