The New World

“The New World” is the sort of film that, left to its own devices, can completely engulf you. On a big screen with a modern sound system, undisturbed by a noisy audience or other distractions, it’s a mesmerizing, nearly unique piece of work. It will hold a lot less power on DVD, I think, unless you’ve got top-of-the-line equipment. It needs to be big to be effective.

That being said, it’s easier to admire the film than to love it. It’s transcendently poetic and philosophical, focused more on characters’ thoughts than on their actions, and such introspection can be trying to a viewer’s patience. I like it better thinking about it than I did while I was watching it. It is very much what they call an “art film.”

It’s from writer/director Terrence Malick, the beloved, reclusive filmmaker who has made only three films before this one over the course of more than 30 years. “Badlands” (1973), “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “The Thin Red Line” (1998) are all classics in their way, and “The New World” is what you might call vintage Malick: contemplative, unusual, and the very opposite of a Hollywood blockbuster.

It begins in 1607 with John Smith’s arrival in Virginia and ends some 10 years later, with Pocahontas in England, stuffed into a proper British dress and going by the name Rebecca. It’s a far more accurate telling of the story than most previous films have managed, though it’s interesting that historical authenticity doesn’t seem like it was Malick’s chief interest, but was merely part of the framework. That is, when it’s over, you’re not supposed to think, “Wow, that was accurate” until after you’ve thought several other things first.

John Smith (Colin Farrell), a romantic adventure-seeker and occasional scoundrel, finds the natives living an idyllic life, devoid of guile or hostility. In Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) — whose name we never actually hear uttered — he sees unspoiled beauty and innocence, a personification of the land and people around her.

Their friendship (and perhaps more) sealed, Pocahontas helps John’s fellow colonists survive a bad winter and is treated with respect by the English when circumstances at home force her to come live with them. When she goes to England with John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the settler she marries after John Smith departs, she is treated like a princess.

Malick pays Farrell as John Smith plenty of attention, both on screen and in his eloquent voice-overs, but the character ranks third in importance, coming in after Pocahontas — so tenderly portrayed by 14-year-old newcomer Kilcher — and nature itself. The rivers, trees and grasses of virginal Virginia take center stage throughout the film, gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki in mostly natural light. The sound design, full of rushing water and chirping birds, reflects this emphasis, and Malick makes superb use of Mozart and Wagner (along with a score by James Horner) to let music play a significant part in painting the picture, too.

No doubt a film as non-plot-centric and ruminative as this one will strike some viewers as self-indulgent, and I probably wouldn’t argue with them. Malick’s technique doesn’t strike me as pretentious — or at least not enough to bother me — but it’s such an unusual film, with its deceptively simple narrative and its basic, naturalistic presentation, that any number of interpretations of it are valid. My interpretation? It’s a beautiful and difficult work of art.

B (2 hrs., 15 min.; PG-13, some battle sequences, nothing terribly graphic.)