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Most reviews of Terrence Malick’s The New World tread a fine line between reverence for its reclusive director, who has made only four highly-crafted films in thirty-five years, and disappointment in its languid take on one of the most legendary historical relationships, that between Native American Pocahontas and English colonizer John Smith. Dana Stevens is representative of this ambivalence toward Malick’s film, writing that it provides a powerful sensory experience while nevertheless noting that its second half slows down considerably and may be, concerning its depiction of Pocahontas’s later life in England as Lady Rebecca, “too hagiographic, straight out of a standard issue biopic.” While many critics express a mixture of admiration for The New World’s lyricism and expressivity and frustration with its slow pacing and diffuse narrative style, some take a more extreme pro or con stance: Lisa Schwarzbaum raves that the film’s second cut (it was edited down from 150 minutes in its original December 2005 limited release version to 135 minutes in its January 2006 general release version) “communicates Malick’s luminous artistic vision of innocence and loss, wildness and order, risks taken and chances lost, with more clarity than [the] first cut.” Carina Chocano calls the film “a work of breathtaking imagination, less a movie than a mode of transport, and in every sense a masterpiece.” Contrarily J. Hoberman calls The New World “monumentally slight,” “heavily aestheticized,” and “timidly genteel.” And Stephen Hunter damns the film as “stately, almost to the point of being static” and concludes that “[I]t’s not quite the thin dead line, but it’s close” (playing on the title of Malick’s previous film The Thin Red Line from 1998).

Historical accuracy is not necessarily a primary concern for most film reviewers; nevertheless most of those surveyed here take up the issue and acknowledge that Malick’s aim is not a faithful depiction of historical truths—an impossible task given the mystery and confusion surrounding the legendary Smith/Pocahontas relationship—but rather a poetic meditation on the possibility of reconciliation between the will to domination over nature, represented by the English colonizers of Jamestown, and the accommodation to the natural world, represented by Pocahontas’s people, the Powhatan. In fact, many reviewers note that Malick signals his distance from both history and legend by refusing to deploy the name “Pocahontas” anywhere in the film. By this account The New World is not in any way an attempt to capture “history” but a poetic reconfiguration of legendary material in order to highlight the persistence of elemental clashes between “civilization” and “nature,” “power” and “acceptance,” “authority” and “anarchy,” etc. Less sympathetic critics castigate the film for its simple oppositions and see its rejection of history not merely as poetic indulgence but as a move toward regressive myth-making (say, identifying the Powhatan so closely with the natural world or making Pocahontas, in Hoberman’s words, a kind of “fertility goddess” who “arrives in wintry Jamestown and suddenly brings the spring”). The romantic legend of Pocahontas and John Smith proves polarizing once again, some regarding Malick’s lyricism as a provocative reinvigoration of old material and others as merely a portentous avoidance of politics.

Ansen, David. "Two Cultures Clash, And Two Lovers Leap." Newsweek 19 December 2005: 69.
"Malick works instinctively, discovering his movies as he films them on location, then rediscovering and reshaping them in the editing room. The reward is moments of transcendent beauty. What gets sacrificed is structure. The meditative, meandering middle of "The New World" is like a symphony with three adagio movements in a row. You hunger for a scherzo. The paradoxical Malick is a shoot-from-the-hip perfectionist who may be temperamentally incapable of making perfect movies. He can't see the forest because he's head over heels in love with the beauty of the trees."
Chocano, Carina. "The New World." Los Angeles Times 23 December 2005.
Chocano provides one of the most enthusiastic reviews for Malick's film, calling it "a work of breathtaking imagination." The film's power derives from its refusal of both objectivity (something a typical careful historical "reconstruction" might pursue) and visual spectacle: "What we get is not an ‘objective' or dispassionate view of the world but rather a series of subjective, experiential perspectives. [Malick] neither strives for verisimilitude nor spectacle but for an alchemic blend of both—life in all its power as it is experienced by sentient, sensitive beings." According to Chocano, all of the film's elements -- cinematography, performances, images, the score by James Horner -- contribute to its power. She, like other reviewers, emphasizes that Malick wishes to take the intransigent material of legend and revivify it, in this case, as a picture of life in its lived reality, wherein history is brought back down to earth as sensory experience.
Clinton, Paul. "Review: O tedious ‘New World.'" 20 January 2006.
In stark contrast to the glowing reviews provided by Roger Ebert and the Los Angeles Times, among others, Clinton calls The New World "as flat as a flapjack," noting that its various brilliant elements—cinematography, production design and costume design—do not adequately compensate for the "ponderous" story and the "colorless characters." Clinton has no patience for Malick's brooding lyricism and unfavorably compares the film's slow pace to that of the typical Hollywood blockbuster: "Watching The New World is like watching a snail cross an eight-lane highway. Perhaps there's a director, or editor, who could make that concept enthralling, but as for me, I kept longing that Jerry Bruckheimer would speed along in a Hummer and squish it flat."
D'Entremont, John. Rev. of The New World, by Terrence Malick. Journal of American History 94.3 (2007): 1023-26.
"The truth is, even among a people woefully ignorant of their own history, Virginia is American memory's most illustrious backwater. Imagine, then, the euphoria in Richmond when news broke in 2003 that a major Hollywood film about early Jamestown would be made soon in Tidewater Virginia. . . . [But] At the box office nationwide, the film was stillborn. It failed to open in many markets, even in Virginia. Early exits by bewildered audience members were common. For Virginia's tourism officials, it was back to square one. Part of the problem was that the film, at bottom, was not really about Virginia at all-nor was it intended to be. Malick, its brilliant, reclusive, and willfully enigmatic director, had brought to it the sensibilities of the philosophy student he had been at Harvard and Oxford, using it to pose central questions about human beings' place in the universe, their relationship to all creation, the meaning (if any) of their lives. . . . Malick, while voicing this philosophy through certain characters, believes in a moral core to the universe, in which everyone could belong if they abandoned the will to conquer and instead accepted a humble but fulfilling lot as one of God's creatures. . . . The ultimate pity is what this film might have been, had it demonstrated an awareness that history is at the heart of life and not merely its background music. Had Malick not simply dusted off a decades-old script long awaiting funding, but rather had noted the rich scholarship of the last thirty years, he might have found a way to make a film that commented on our place in nature and the evils of imperialism, while capturing the full complexity of human beings. He might have told of Wahunsunacock's aggrandizement of his people through war and diplomacy, and his daughter's service to him and their people, as his eyes and ears among the English, for several years before her capture. And he might have depicted the real John Smith -- charismatic, self-promoting, utterly unsentimental, hard-bitten, effective, and violent -- and compared him to John Rolfe, who did fall in love with Pocahontas, and did have views of Indians quite different from Smith's. Had Malick done this, he would not have seen or made a new world. But he could have illuminated the one world we all inhabit, where no wisdom is monopolized, and no choices-or people-are perfect."
Dargis, Manohla. "When Virginia was Eden, and Other Tales of History." New York Times 23 December 2005.
Dargis, like others, sounds the note that director Malick is "more poet than historian," a filmmaker who delights in making expansive use of the ready-made metaphor of John Smith and Pocahontas's romance, especially as a means to examine the complexities of colonialism: "If the affair seems strangely ethereal, as if it were taking place in another dimension, in a lovelier, more enchanted realm, it is because Mr. Malick is fashioning a countermythology in The New World, one to replace, or at least challenge, a mythology already in place." Dargis remarks on Malick's ease with lyricism and affinity for landscape, whether the unspoiled natural world of Virginia or the formal gardens of England. According to Dargis, Pocahontas (later Lady Rebecca) is the primary character here, the most vivid case of Malick's attempt to wrestle seriously with the issue of the agency of the Other: "In that telling [the conventional Hollywood approach to which Malick's film is opposed], Pocahontas is the noble savage exalted by an impulse to self-sacrifice for a white man. In Mr. Malick's telling, Pocahontas is a woman whose story has the reach of myth and the tragic dimension of life."
Ebert, Roger. "The New World." 20 January 2006.
Ebert approvingly highlights the binary opposition at the film's core, that between the "Indians [who] live because they submit to the realities of their land, and the English [who] nearly die because they are ignorant and arrogant." For him the character Pocahontas bridges the two opposing cultures, and the film's strength lies in its characterization of her as neither a conventional lover nor the storybook figure of simpler versions of the story. The New World takes a fresh look at history—specifically, it avoids imposing a retroactive judgment on the events that unfold during the film's narrative: "what distinguishes Malick's film is how firmly he refuses to know more than he should in Virginia in 1607 or London a few years later. The events in the film, including the tragic battles between the Indians and the settlers, seem to be happening for the first time. No one here has read a history book from the future." Unlike many other reviewers, Ebert does not indicate in any way that he finds portions of the film rather slack or its oblique approach to its subject frustrating; rather, he concludes, "[Malick] is a visionary, and this story requires one."
French, Philip. "The New World." The Observer 29 January 2006.
French calls Malick one of the "cinema's great poets," though he has only made four films in over thirty years. The New World consolidates Malick's reputation because it is "a masterpiece, alert and sensitive to the flowing of water, the rippling of forests and fields, the texture of newly cut and weathered timber." Though others have found slow and unconvincing the second half of the film, which depicts Pocahontas acculturation into British life, French finds both parts of the film equally successful, each "deal[ing] sympathetically with the founding myths of America." Ultimately he celebrates The New World as "a profound, revealing, wonderful film about the meeting of two cultures and the shaping of a new one."
Hoberman, J. "Mr and Mrs. Smith." Village Voice 20 December 2005.
Hoberman believes that Malick's epic intentions remain unfulfilled and The New World succeeds only in being "monumentally slight." The review's jaunty tone indicates a certain skepticism toward Malick's poetic depiction of the convergence between Native American and European cultures: "[The film] soon settles down in the neighborhood of Kevin Costner's sappy Dances with Wolves. Smith contemplates the Powhatan natural paradise of fabulous body paint and spontaneous hippie dances, not to mention a daily regiment of chaste nuzzling with young Miss P, and his appreciation burbles over: ‘They have no jealousy, no sense of possession.'" Hoberman continues his critique of Malick's idealized approach, calling the film both "heavily aestheticized" and "timidly genteel." Ultimately Malick's ambition—to present a lyrical epic out of the legendary material surrounding America's founding—does The New World not find an adequate expression in his final product. "Some 25 years in the making, The New World offers only a glimpse of an unattainable realm that fades into the mist even as you search for it."
Hunter, Stephen. "On the Far Horizon, ‘The New World ‘ Slowly Emerges." 20 January 2006.
Hunter acknowledges that The New World is an attempt to rescue the myth of Pocahontas and John Smith from "the swamp of kitsch into which is has sunk," but he does not find the attempt to be successful. Hunter finds the film to be distant from its characters and drama: "Malick is far more interested in states of nature, which he expresses with extremely slow camera movement that notes with stunning precision how nature arranges bushes as opposed to how man arranges bushes. Really, is it that big a deal? Especially, when it turns out he favors nature over man." The review gives Malick some credit for revealing by his painstaking method "the nuances of personality in the mesh of myth";"nevertheless, Hunter's overall verdict is that The New World is unnecessarily obscure, its drama muted, and its effect "stately almost to the point of being static."
Lane, Anthony. "The Other: ‘Munich,' ‘Hidden' and ‘The New World." New Yorker 26 December 2005.
In his brief but pointed review Lane compares Malick's film unfavorably to the Disney animated Pocahontas, noting that it would provide any children in the audience with a chance to catch up on their "restorative sleep." He identifies the concern of the film as a very simple one, "the rape of a maiden land," a theme whose impact will depend on the tolerance of the viewer for Malick's signature "tone poem" style: "the murmurs of internal monologue that take the place of conversation, the reverence for green thoughts, the hopeless lurches into action, the bizarre physical sensibility that registers every flicker of sunlight but shies away, as if for fear of bruising, from any breath of sex." Despite his flippant and somewhat dismissive tone, Lane notes at the end of the review that he has been won over by Malick's images and Kilcher's charisma and gives The New World credit for asserting a very straightforward lesson, that "to the innocent eye, ripe for marveling, every world is new."
McCarthy, Todd. "A Tough Trail to Follow: The New World." Variety 12 December 2005: 50-51.
McCarthy early on signals that he is not among the Malick loyalists, remarking that the director's "exalted visuals and isolated metaphysical epiphanies are ill-supported by a muddled, lurching narrative, resulting in a sprawling, unfocused account of an epochal historical moment." Nevertheless, taking a more positive tone, McCarthy makes a distinction between the fictionalized storyline and the "authenticity" of the film's production design: Malick and his collaborators "have fashioned a convincing version of indigenous American life 400 years ago that has a gratifyingly hand-tooled feel." Despite this enthusiasm for certain elements of the film, the review remarks that The New World sensory impact cannot compensate for its failure to establish a strong connection between its characters and its audience, as well as its inability to penetrate into the legendary characters' motives. According to McCarthy, Malick relies too heavily on "nature shots" and a certain "pictorial repetition" that marks his latest film as a "certain artistic treading water."
Schwarzbaum, Lisa. "The New World." Entertainment 18 January 2006.
Schwarzbaum perhaps offers the most enthusiastic review of those surveyed here. She celebrates the shorter cut (edited by 15 minutes from the version released in December 2005) by noting that it communicates Malick's "luminous artistic vision" with more clarity than the previous version. Unlike others who express some irritation with Malick's poetic approach, Schwarzbaum celebrates this addition to the small body of work "that explore[s] what it means to be an American." She emphasizes Malick's facility with elegiac images and ability to breathe new life into an old story, so much so that The New World provides "a fresh new definition of early America." The actors Colin Farrell, Q'orianka Kilcher and Christian Bale come in for special praise; overall Schwarzbaum celebrates Malick's "gloriously stubborn, personal, sensual filmmaking style."
Stevens, Dana. "Malick in Wonderland." 20 January 2006.
Stevens begins the review by evoking the mythology of Malick as the legendary and reclusive auteur, a filmmaker of "almost Rimbaudian purity and perfection." In The New World Malick brings his oblique approach to a "shopworn American myth." Ultimately, in Stevens' view, the film is primarily a sensory experience, highlighting the evanescent tenderness of love and the lyricism of nature. The film leaves behind the constraints of conventional history so that Malick may play freely with the Edenic myth suggested by this legendary romance. Though the second half drags a bit and the characters may speak too earnestly in their stilted voice-overs, The New World is philosophically rewarding and visually refreshing: "It makes sense that Malick never finished his thesis in philosophy at Oxford. In a way he's still writing it, using his films as scratchpads to work through questions like the one John Smith poses to himself early in the film: ‘What voice is this that speaks within me, guides me toward the best?' The New World isn't Terrence Malick's best, but it's guiding him in the right direction."
Zacharek, Stephanie. "The New World." 23 December 2005.
Zacharek's review puts her squarely in the camp of Malick's detractors; her most damning conclusion is that, on the evidence of his most recent film, Malick dislikes people "but he never met a tree he didn't like." The depiction of the natural world that other sympathetic reviews note as lyrical or entrancing Zacharek calls "glassy-eyed" and "so much atmospheric tootle." The film's historical perspective, too, is merely simplistic, a conventional pairing of the pure "naturals" against the corrupt colonizers—"like a Tony Scott movie on quaaludes." Zacharek admits that there are strong performances by both Colin Farrell as Smith and Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas but remarks that they can't salvage a film so profoundly unconcerned with drama or human interaction.

See Also

Arnold, Gary. "A Whole 'New World' of Problems; Visually Stunning Imagery Can't Replace Poor Chemistry." Washington Times 20 January 2006: D8.

Baker, Tom. "'There is that in her I do not know'." Daily Yomiuri 20 April 2006: 17.

Bayles, Martha. "Pocahontas in Love." Weekly Standard 20 February 2006.

Corliss, Richard. "The New World." Time 19 December 2005: 140.

Hoberman, J. "Paradise Now." Village Voice 8 March 2006: 36-38.

Johnson, Brian D . "Walking the Thin Red Line with Pocahontas." Maclean's 23 January 2006.

Jones, K. "The New World: Terrence Malick's Sublime Vision -- and Its Limits." Film Comment 42.2 (2006): 24-29.

Kauffmann, Stanley. "Settlers and Unsettlers -- In The New World, Terrence Malick is once again a better philosopher than director." New Republic 13 February 2006): 24.

Killsback, Leo. Rev. of The New World, by Terrence Malik. Wicazo Sa Review 21.2 (2006): 197-201.

Petrakis, John. "American Beginnings." Christian Century 10 January 2006: 49.

Powers, John. "American Dreams; American Dreams; Politics as Usual." Vogue February 2006: 160.

Sterritt, David. "Film, Philosophy, and Terrence Malick's 'The New World'." Chronicle of Higher Education 6 January 2006: B12.

Taubin, Amy. "The New World." Sight and Sound 16.2 (2006): 44-48.