Malick frames his point in a triangular love story, with the pivot being the Native American princess Pocahontas (although she's never referred to by that name), played by the astonishing teenage newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher, and the two very different settlers she loves. On one side is the bedraggled Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), among the first arrivals and a proto-Renaissance man who quickly learns to respect and admire the “naturals”. Politics and society however, conspire to separate the two, just as their relationship offers hope of peace and mutual assistance between the starving settlers and the suspicious native people. With Smith otherwise occupied, by order of the King, Malick introduces John Rolfe, played with tremendous delicacy by Christian Bale, a wealthy tobacco plantation owner, who Rachel, as she is now known, marries and bears a son by. Various fleeting subplots surround the central story, represented by crazed priests, politicians and starving settlers. As with The Thin Red Line, the ensemble of actors pop up here and there, some barely registering in their couple of scenes while others disappear altogether into the background. Nothing is explored in too much depth, because the thing would be three days long if they were. Better to use short scenes and moments of metaphysical poetry to communicate the chaos on both sides.
Splitting the worlds, and the heart of the cast, is the ethereal Kilcher; a tremendous, wide-eyed presence, brimming with heart and youth, and soul when required. When lathered in Disney's anti-bacterial soap, Pocahontas became little more than a cute metaphor for an unspoiled land, a kind of Earth Mother totem pole; but Malick, a philosopher as much as a filmmaker, allows Kilcher to deliver a remarkably assured and natural performance as a real person, not only reclaimed but re-animated from the popular cartoon. For her more seasoned co-stars, this cannot have been an easy film to make, but Farrell and Bale both provide sterling support, with the Dubliner delivering his most natural and compelling performance since his debut turn in Tigerland. Around them nature, light and sound, is as much a character, with the physical landscape literally breathing before us through a beautifully judged ambient soundtrack.
Although some story elements are entirely fiction, Malick has gone to tremendous efforts to ensure his film is absolutely as it was 400 years ago in every other regard. He filmed along the Chickahominy River, very close to the original Jamestown settlement. His rough-hewn, hand-built sets, realistic costumes and armoury help to ground the carefully constructed atmosphere and dreamlike mood. Visually, Malick and his ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki present a deluge of arresting and original images, brought to the screen without the aid of electric lighting. The results might not have the same heavenly glow of his other pictures, but it was a brave move, totally in keeping with his requirement for realism. Malick can make a kennel look like a cathedral, and his film is a masterclass in crafting a story from little more than light and magic.
Maybe it’s just as well its beautiful and absorbing, because there is very little spoken dialogue. I didn’t mind the silences (not least because there are very few real silences - there's a gentle ambient sound track throughout). I found it oddly dreamlike, as I expected, but entirely involving, which I didn't. As he does, Malick also fills his gaps with murmured voiceovers; snatches of thoughts or diaries that might not tell us much more about the story, but drag you into the characters head, adding a rich complexity to what we do know.
The film builds to a fascinating last act, with Rachel and Rolfe summoned back to England to meet the King. This development provides the film’s emotional heart, with Rachel wandering through a finely realised London, it’s wet, grey streets and heaving crowds with the lush forests. Those who know the story know what happened next, with Malick choosing devastatingly effective shots of a freshly made, empty bed and a still, darkened Native face to represent his conclusion, a moment that sings off the screen with heart and wisdom and genuine emotion.
As in the similarly themed WWII morality tale Thin Red Line, where humans fight a vicious war against the backdrop of a shrugging natural world, Malick is telling a traditional American cinema story in his own, decidedly non-traditional way. In allowing the camera to linger unhurriedly, occasionally for longer than the viewers gaze can hold, or in cutting to a random scene of brutality or madness, Malick is making his film exactly as he wants to. Bitching about its exorbitant running time and narrative longueurs is to miss the whole point. If it was any different, it’d be another man’s film. Something else altogether, and a lesser thing at that.
The way commercial movies are constructed now, the unfamiliar attention a film like The New World (and Micheal Haneke's Caché) requires can split an audience right down the middle. Impatient viewers might baulk at another shot of distant birds flying in formation across a huge, bruised sky or a series of composed visual haikus on the way water falls on rocks or how leaves fracture sunlight into rainbows. Malick’s approach might strike you as either totally immersive and rewarding or maddeningly dense and boring. Or somewhere in between. Personally, I loved it, but seeing as it might be another five years or more before we see anything like it again, I'm prepared to debate it for the sake of argument.