The New World

Saturday, October 06, 2007

I'm not sure why Colin Farrell keeps on getting cast in so many big films. His movies rarely make a lot of money and he's not especially talented. He's the kind of actor who can just about tread water – he doesn't ruin the films he's in, but he does nothing to enhance them either. And so it is with The New World.

In Terence Malick's film, Farrell plays Captain John Smith. And once again Farrell exhibits his curious lack of talent without truly embarrassing himself. Although he does come close once or twice. There's one scene with Pocahontas (Kilcher) where they're trying to communicate and she touches his hair – he plays the moment like a naughty little schoolboy, giving coy little glances to the side before fixing his eyes on her. It's an amateurish piece of acting.

I also dislike the way that Farrell plays Smith as a sort of English Fabio. He's got long hair, an earring, dreamy eyes and he wears sleeveless shirts (which are often open) so that he can show off his muscles. It's a character that seems tailor made for little girls, which I guess is apt considering the material. But seriously, it's a juvenile representation of Smith and one that hinders an otherwise fine film.

But this miscalculation isn't as disastrous as it could have been, as Malick's visual sense more than holds the film together – it becomes quite easy to tune Farrell out. One of my favourite shots is of Smith wading through a swamp in a full suit of armour. It's a nice way of visualising the tension between the pioneers and the new world they plan to conquer – they may be more technologically advanced than the natives, but they're also more cumbersome.

Another fabulous shot that makes the same point cuts from a beautiful underwater shot of children and fishes to the pioneers' boats. Here you have a feeling of paradise coming to an end, of a steamroller squashing everything that gets in its way. Not that the pioneers arrive with bad intentions. No, they're escaping religious persecution – they just want a home. And Smith even talks about how there'll be no landlords, how they'll be no poor and how everyone will work hard to build a true commonwealth. Well, I guess we all start things with good intentions.

But despite Smith's desire to help build a settlement, he never really feels at home with the pioneers. He actually feels more at home with the Natives – a people who (eventually) make him feel part of their tribe and who (at first) reject notions of greed. And on top of this, Smith falls for the Indian chief's most beloved daughter.

The romance between Smith and Pocahontas isn't quite as convincing as it should be. This is mostly because of Farrell's acting (see the moment when Pocahontas touches his hair), but it's also because, seeing as Pocahontas is an adolescent, the film has to tread lightly. Therefore we get a lot of shots of the couple wandering about in fields gazing into each other's eyes – they don't even kiss. So as a result it all feels a bit unbelievably pure.

Things actually improve once the couple have separated. I enjoyed the scenes in Jamestown where you get to compare the miserable English children, mouthy and filthy as only English children can be, with the Natives, and where you contrast the cold, muddy, walled pioneer settlement with the welcoming one Smith left behind – he's exchanged paradise for misery. And I also love some of the small details in this Jamestown sequence – the futile way the pioneers dig for gold while they're starving, the insane preacher and the fact that the settlers have to eat their belts to stay alive. Consequently you can't help but feel that Pocahontas' mercy mission to give the white man food was a grave miscalculation – the Natives certainly would have been better off had whitey starved to death. But the scene where the Natives come to give the white man food is a good one and it gives Smith and Pocahontas one of their best scenes – the more restrained scenes are more effective than the ones where the couple get to walk endlessly around fields.

But this moment of peace doesn't last long and the tensions soon flare up again, which leads to some enjoyable battle sequences. And I also enjoyed the scenes, after Pocahontas is expelled from her village for giving the settlers seeds, where the Native girl is made to become an English one. On the one hand it's quite amusing watching her being made over by some ghastly English troll, but on the other it's sad to see a large part of her identity being scrubbed away.

But unfortunately, after this, the film goes through a bit of a slump. There's a second romance (after Smith's 'death', Pocahontas marries Christian Bale's character) and the new couple end up going to England. Here you get some nice moments (Pocahontas arriving in the old country and being completely fascinated by it) but the narrative comes to a grinding halt. Plus you can't help but feel that Bale would have been much better than Farrell in the Smith role. Sure Bale usually plays madmen and he's not your typical romantic lead, but he's a fine actor so no role should really be beyond him.

However, despite the final twenty minutes or so dragging somewhat, the film recovers with a splendid ending. It's quite difficult to say why it works so well, but instead of merely pleasing the eye, the film finally manages to achieve a level of emotion is doesn't quite generate elsewhere.

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