Since his debut with Badlands in 1973, Terrence Malick has directed just two films: Days of Heaven in 1978 and The Thin Red Line twenty years later. That makes his fourth movie, the rapturously romantic and haunting New World, a genuine event. As Pocahontas, newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher, 15, is the canvas on which Malick paints his portrait of the old world colliding with the new. Kilcher, of Peruvian ancestry (and a cousin of Jewel), has a unique beauty the camera loves, capable of quicksilver changes from winsome to precociously wise and grave. She powers this mythic love story between the noble daughter of Powhatan (August Schellenberg) and Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), a soldier of fortune who arrived in Virginia in 1607, with 102 other Englishmen, ready to settle the colony of Jamestown. Malick uses the myth to draw battle lines between nature and invading civilization. A wondrous early image of an Indian watching the three English ships sail into the harbor stands in stark contrast to the carnage of the Indian attack when the settlers refuse to leave. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki --- a grandmaster at blending color and natural light --- craft a tone poem that may throw some audiences through its use of interior monologues. And Farrell's laddie-boy vigor sometimes feels at odds with the delicacy of the material. Christian Bale is far more persuasively in thrall as tobacco farmer John Rolfe, the widower who marries Pocahontas and sweeps her off to London when Smith deserts her. The final words of Pocahontas in England, a new mother constricted by her modern dress and surroundings, resonate powerfully. "Let's go home," she tells John. In rendering the sound and spirit of that home in exquisite detail, Malick brings his film very close to a state of grace.
From The Archives Issue 990: December 29, 2005