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New Line Home Cinema presents
"Don't trust me. You don't know who I am."
DVD ReviewAfter decades of hibernation, Terrence Malick re-emerged to much fanfare with The Thin Red Line, with the lyricism and violence of Badlands and Days of Heaven very much still his signature style. Fortunately Malick didn't resume his Salingeresque exile, and now the films are practically cascading out of him—The New World seems never to have gotten traction with audiences, despite respectful notices, and that's unfortunate, because it really is a beautiful and intellectually engaging movie. Perhaps it's the prospect of revisiting a story that seems overly familiar, from grade school and from Disney; or maybe it was the fear of a blandly revisionist version of the first Europeans in the Americas that kept people away. And the folks releasing the movie seemed collectively to have shot themselves in the foot, first releasing a 149-minute version late in 2005, then substituting the slightly shorter but still stately version on this disc. But if you shut out all the noise and don't spend your time pining for what might have been, either at a theater near you or on this DVD release, you'll find much here that's magical.
There's a heavy amount of irony in the title of this film, which tells the story of the first English settlers, in Jamestown, in 1607, and their evolving relationship with the Native Americans who were rightly suspicious of these newcomers. Malick's story is neither the Eurocentric one of manifest destiny, nor the doctrinaire tribal one of the rape of the continent by white men—rather, it's a nuanced look at the workings and failings of empires, and at the human emotions and entanglements that can snarl the best laid plans. Colin Farrell stars as Captain John Smith, spared from hanging for mutiny when we meet him, as three ships wash up on the Virginia coast—in their armor and helmets and fire to claim land for their king, the English here are very much Anglophone conquistadores. The land they happen upon is fantastically beautiful and pristine; of course the first thing that the English do when they arrive is put up a fence. Malick's film is respectful of the native people without patronizing them—the tribes cling to the belief that Smith and his comrades will tough out the winter and then go home, but as we well know, they've got other ideas.
The critical relationship here is between Smith and one of the many daughters of the local chief, and here Malick's storytelling capacity works as well on a personal level as on a political one—it's Pocahontas as a hottie, the carnal connection between her and Smith being irresistible. (Q'Orianka Kilcher does very well in the role, not shying away from the darker aspects of her character, while also showing us just what got Captain Smith so fired up about her.) Their story has obvious affinities with Romeo and Juliet, written a decade or so before Smith and his comrades established Jamestown, and if their narrative doesn't have the tragic ending that the tale of the Veronese young lovers does, their drawn-out history is almost as sad, and similarly doesn't end well. (Malick gallops through a number of years in the last half hour of the movie, and you've got to stay quite alert to keep up.) Christopher Plummer is strong as Christopher Newport, Smith's occasionally imperious superior; and Christian Bale is a sturdy John Rolfe, another white suitor for Pocahontas.
Malick makes frequent use of voiceover to convey his characters' interior monologues, almost the stuff of Shakespearean soliloquy—some of this seems to be drawn from contemporary diaries, other parts seem to be more speculative, but it can be a little odd, and throw you out of the story a bit. But there's so much to look at and admire that the pictures kind of carry you along. The movie is shot exquisitely, and the costumes, sets and period props are impeccable; the actors inhabit them all fully, though, and you're never embarrassed for them playing dress-up, like you may be if you take a trip to colonial Williamsburg, or to Plimouth Plantation. Malick tends to linger on images he loves, and lots of them are of the weather—you've got to have a certain patience with a movie like this, and be prepared to settle in for brilliant shots of wispy clouds darkening and covering the sun. Even if you want to resist reading these metaphorically—and you probably should—it's not a tale jam-packed with action. But there are a handful of brutal battle sequences, and though Kilcher is winning, the movie sags some when Farrell is off the screen—his charisma drives a good portion of what's here, and when he's away, he's missed, and not just by Pocahontas.
But to see a filmmaker of Malick's talent working on such a grand scale, and with such resoundingly successful results, is, for most of this movie, pure pleasure. His disappearing off the filmmaking map suggests that Malick thinks that the world is hard and severe, but it's made less so by Terrence Malick movies.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Emmanuel Lubezki's delicate cinematography is strongly transferred, retaining its luminosity and precision. Black levels are especially well rendered, and a good thing, too, because it's a movie that's not afraid of the dark.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: A title card appended to the front of the film encourages you to play this DVD "quite loud," and it's worth pissing off the neighbors and doing so—both the 2.0 and 5.1 tracks are densely mixed, and have been carefully transferred.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Thing About My Folks, Ushpizin, Syriana, The Notorious Bettie Page, A Prairie Home Companion
1 TV Spots/Teasers
The DVD-ROM content won't play for you if you've only got a Mac, but you're not missing out on a whole lot—there are 16 panoramic views of film locations, and links to websites for the film and for New Line. Click on the company logo on the main menu to check out the DVD credits.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsTerrence Malick's dreamy, ethereal, historically astute and politically even-handed telling of the first Europeans in the Americas is a lovely and lyrical accomplishment, a worthy successor to Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line. He even lifts the curtain justthismuch to allow us a look at his technique—or that of his collaborators, anyway—boosting my enthusiasm for this DVD still further. Strongly recommended.
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