I normally don't do too well with sprawling three hour epics. My butt, bladder, and attention span are rarely up to the task. Terrence Malick's The New World is a beautiful exception. In it, Malick tells the familiar story of Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), Captain Smith (Colin Farrell), and John Rolfe (Christian Bale) in such a profound way that you'll swear you're seeing it for the first time. The photography, the score, the editing, the unflinching direction, and the breathtaking debut performance of a 14 year old Q'orianka Kilcher make the 172 minute runtime of Malick's extended cut a nonissue.
I'll start with the photography–the original reason I picked up The New World. I first learned about Emmanuel Lubezki's naturalistic cinematography on an internet forum. By "naturalistic cinematography" I mean that the film crew used no artificial lighting. Their key light was the sun, its natural reflections their fill. Some say it's experimental and arty, I say it fits the film perfectly. One thing's for sure, The New World is a sight to behold, especially on larger screens.
James Horner's score, mixed with pieces of music from the likes of Wagner and Mozart, supplement Lubezki's images well. Often prominent, but never calling attention to itself, the music plays an important role in setting the tone of The New World.
The film credits four editors, two of whom are A.C.E., and there may have been a couple more hands on the job. Like the photography, the editing of The New World is anything but conventional. Jump cuts often move things along and we rarely see a traditionally blocked scene.
Of course, the set design, costume design, sound design, and every other aspect of filmmaking are top notch in The New World. But all of these things come down to Malick's direction, which I described earlier as "unflinching." Make no doubt about it, what you see on screen is Malick's vision come to life, with a complete disregard for the cookie cutter that so many writer/directors must force their dough through.
Although "The New World" obviously refers to the one that English settlers found across the pond, Malick primarily focuses his story on Pocahontas and the New World she discovers through Captain Smith, John Rolfe, and, ultimately, herself. Who would have thought that a little choir member from How the Grinch Stole Christmas would be able to, in her first lead role, step up and carry the film through her performance as Pocahontas? I suppose it makes sense that the 14 year old Kilcher could convey Pocahontas' sense of wide-eyed innocence, but what's astonishing is how she pulls us into her thoughts and emotions with the knack of an actress with twice her age and experience. Towards the end of the film, when Pocahontas is faced with choosing between two men, Kilcher forms a smile that not only lights up the screen, but also illuminates our understanding of her inner emotions.
After all this praise, I suppose I better say that The New World may not be for everyone. The extended cut's three hour runtime may seem a little long and drawn-out for some. It's also considered "arty" and "experimental," but don't let that discourage you. The New World has everything that makes a movie great. It is beautifully photographed, wonderfully scored, and masterfully edited. Terrence Malick sees his visionary film all the way through and gets outstanding performances from his cast along the way. Although Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, and Christopher Plummer (playing an English Captain) are all great, the young Q'orianka Kilcher steals the show as Pocahontas.