Saturday, 27 September 2008

Malick's The New World

Come spirit…
help us sing the story of our land

You are our mother
we, your field of corn

We rise…

from out of the soul of you.

Terence Malick’s The New World is my single favourite film. I can't watch it too often, as it is in some ways too painful. I started welling up minutes into it, and was kept at a pitch of rapt emotion until the end. This from a film in which more action-orientated viewers might say that nothing at all happens, and in which almost the only words the heroine speaks are ‘I like grass…’

It is a mystical film. No critic picked up on this when it was released, citing instead its dreamy, poetic form, lush cinematography, and spartan dialogue. Set in the first decade of the 17th century, the film is framed as the spiritual journey of the daughter of the Algoquin chief Powhatan, played by Q’orianka Kilcher, as she falls in love with a European settler, John Smith (Colin Farrell), loses him, is baptised, and marries an Englishman (Christian Bale). It is indeed the Pocahontas story, but she is deliberately never named as such.

The life of the woodland-dwelling Powhatan tribe is lyrically represented, with every effort at authenticity made. At the beginning of the film, we see the young woman and her sisters swimming in a river, from underwater. The hypnotic, unmodulating prelude to Wagner's Das Rheingold, based on the chord of E flat major, swells behind the scene, the girls' bodies in the water echoing Wagner's Rhinemaidens. We are back at the primoridial beginning of humanity. Faces are painted with patterns of grey ash and black mud, bodies decorated with feathers and beads. A gentleness and a strange, unsolemn stillness hangs over this pristine, unfallen world.

Mother…where do you dwell?

Are you in the sky?

Are you in the sea?

Colin Farrell plays John Smith, sent upriver to trade with the natives, whom the settlers call 'naturals' (which could mean 'fool' or 'simpleton' in Elizabethan English, as well as 'native'.) Farrell's performance is unusually subtle and introspective: his expressive dark eyes and physical grace hint at a similiarity between himself and the native people. Q’orianka Kilcher (herself Quechua) is in turn an extraordinary, luminous presence. Straight-backed and supple, she gives a performance of powerful simplicity as the grave and inquisitive favourite daughter of Powhatan. She saves Smith’s life by throwing herself on top of him when he is captured and is lying terrified in the chieftain's hut. Smudge-bundles drift smoke under the eaves. A shaman stalks the rafters, undulating his arms to which long feathers are attached to resemble the wings of an eagle.

Smith and the girl form a tentative romance. They barely touch one another. Long, tender scenes show them learning words of each other's languages, or swimming, or lying in the grass looking at the sky. There is a profound state of grace here. Paul Arendt of the BBC said, rightly: 'The editing of these images is so strange - seductive and elliptic, and completely unlike the grammar of everyday movies - that it feels like listening to poetry in another language.'

Critics found the film ponderous. I found its delicate and sombre beauty heart-rending. Malick's camera lingers on the patterns of raindrops falling on great silver-grey coils of river; on water-fowl in flight; on the shifting light caught in the leaves, and the soft susurrus of the wind through endless grasses.

Smith is deeply impressed with the natives' way of life, stunned by their lack of competition, guile, and jealousy. But conflict is inevitable, and the daughter of Powhatan is expelled by her father for helping Smith. 'I should have you killed', he says to her, in Algonquin. 'But I cannot. I am too old. My heart could not bear it.' The girl goes to live with the settlers, but Smith abandons her. Her scenes of elemental grief are terrible to behold. She rubs her face in ash and dirt, becomes a solemn and silent figure in the settlement, a broken person.

In time, the colony's new governor, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), takes an interest in her, and tenderly accompanies her as she goes about her tasks. Almost totally silent, graceful and dignified in her heartbreak, she consents to marry him. She begins to wear English clothes and shoes for the first time; she becomes a tobacco farmer's wife, as she and her new husband build a little cottage. She is seen converting to Christianity and taking the name 'Rebecca'.

The last part of the film is, in part, about her return to life. The scenes between her and Bale are achingly poignant. Patiently, he waits for her heart to turn towards him, understanding her pain, himself a widower. A little boy is born to them; the girl raises her arms to give thanks to Mother Earth and to the great sun. These scenes are shot in exquisite autumnal light. Woodsmoke drifts over the couple's tobacco fields, and the horsetail in the fens and the tawny grasses shiver in the low sun. Bale's character loves his mysterious silent wife devotedly, understanding that her composure hides tremendous sorrow - the loss of her people, her family, an understanding that this is the beginning of the end for their ancient way of life.

The couple are summoned to the English court, and Powhatan sends several members of the tribe to accompany them. They bow solemnly to the woman who had once been the daughter of their chief. One is carrying a bundle of twigs; he explains that Powhatan has instructed him to put one into a bag for every Englishman he sees, to estimate their numbers.

With the English scenes (Oxford's Merton Street and the Bodleian doubling for Jacobean London) the film enters a more symbolic mode. One of the ‘naturals’ who is brought to the English court finds himself in a formal topiary garden, each tree and hedge clipped to be identical with its fellow. With utter, solemn incomprehension, he vanishes away into the English mist. Before King James, the girl, dressed in English finery, is radiantly beautiful. Numerous tokens of the new world have been brought to show the King and Queen; 'Rebecca' looks at a caged skunk with sad-eyed recognition of kinship.

The sad end of the woman known as Pocahontas is well-known, as she never saw her homeland again. But the film has a strange, hauntingly cathartic epilogue: we see her spirit running joyfully into the garden of the Elizabethan house, sprinkling herself with river water, cartwheeling among the trees, and raising her arms to the sun. A return is enacted, a home-coming into wild nature.


at last I know where you live -

* * *

Malick's film is a masterpiece, a melancholy tone-poem of profound beauty. The trailer can be viewed here:

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

Yes, in total agreement you'll find me, and I recall seeing it at the Arclight, the movie shrine in Hollywood, to a rapt crowd. I even took my sons, all of about 10 and 13 at the time, as I insisted they must watch it as films like Malick's must be contemplated, in our secular cathedrals.

I never cry at anything nearly; I wept at its closing scene. I know the film editor who worked with Malick on his earlier films and although I still have not seen all of "Days of Heaven" (I have to view them in a proper cinema), the others-- especially "Thin Red Line" and "The New World"-- gain increasing stature on my very short (about half a dozen as I'm a picky critic) list of my favorite movies. You see each one and realize: for a sensitive soul plunged into a nightmarish reality, indeed, this is how it must have been.

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