The Emperor’s New World? Terrence Malick on Trial

It might seem to the casual observer like this blog is basically a big love-in, a sort of forum for the various writers to sit about high-fiving, giving each other back-rubs, and discussing our work using the phrase ‘really great’ a lot. Not only the content but also the blog’s name may contribute to this impression, and so it may surprise you to learn that occasionally we disagree (and not just about Mad Men, ages ago). Sure, maybe it’s only on a few things, and yeah, maybe afterwards we just go back to talking about how much we all hate The Golden Compass, and then high-five and maybe rub the odd back or two, but the fact remains that we are not the Five-Headed Sex Beast of Self-Congratulation we look at first glance. To prove it, and maybe get a little stimulating discussion going, we’re going to air some of our disagreements on this here blog.

First in the dock is the famously reclusive and slow-working auteur Terrence Malick, who recently released the fifth film in his 38-year career, The Tree of Life. I haven’t yet seen it, mainly because I did see his previous film, The New World. If it seems a bit redundant to discuss that film when he’s just brought out a new one, maybe the following will go some way towards explain why I haven’t yet been able to drag myself into the cinema to sit through his stuff a second time. After my rather bitter rant, like I’ve taken the film as a personal affront to me for some reason, Danny will argue in favour of that pretentious hack’s snore-a-thon, sorry, visionary auteur’s masterpiece. But that’s for later – first it’s me, quietly and modestly, for the prosecution.

Some might argue that the thing about ‘arty’ films, or more specifically the sorts of slow, meandering ones which focus more on atmosphere, imagery and sound than on the characters or the plot, is that the criteria for judging whether or not they succeed is different to those you would use for a more conventional film. That may be the case, and perhaps the fact that I’m an unashamed lover of both plots and characters explains why I do not ‘get’ The New World. However, my view is that even if you’re setting out to create a sort of visual/auditory experience (critics often describe it as a poem), if that experience has characters and a story, there is no reason for the former to be thin, and the latter uninteresting. And frankly, in this case I don’t think the poetic aspects are much to write home about either.

The plot is basically linear, and actually pretty conventional – a doomed romance. Colin Farrell plays Captain Smith, a colonist who falls in love with the native Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher, an unknown putting in a great performance which is the best thing in the film). Christian Bale turns up much later as another of Pocahontas’s suitors. All three do their best, but they have not got a lot to work with. There is almost no dialogue, and what little there is tends to be the bare minimum necessary for us to follow the plot. Much of the film is spent following the courtship between Smith and Pocahontas, which is mostly wordless – as such, our only hope of understanding them lies with what we see them do, and with the snippets of voice-over (of which there are many). The romantic action, first of all: Smith and Pocahontas gaze into one another’s eyes; they wander through fields; she dances about, laughing gaily; their fingers touch and their lips brush; at one point they go swimming. If this sounds like a dreary MTV music video, that’s because that’s exactly what it looks like. It feels like this sequence happens about 800 times, and when Smith leaves the story for a while, Rolfe steps in handily to take his place and it happens again. The romance, which is the central feature of the story, hinges almost entirely on longing glances, billowing hair, fingers drifting through waving corn… it’s like watching the same short excerpt from some ITV Saturday night weepie over and over.

These scenes, and much of the rest of the film, are accompanied by brief snatches of voice-over, which provide the principal insight into the nature of the central characters. This insight is severely limited by two factors: first of all, the voice-over is in formalised, poetic language which gives us little idea how these people actually think, and what they are actually like; and secondly, the poetry is as limp and obvious as as all the wandering about in fields which it drifts over. Farrell reverently mumbles, ‘It was a dream. Now I am awake. I let her love me. I made her love me’; Kilcher whispers ‘We rise. We rise. Afraid of myself. A god, he seems to me. What else is life, but being near you?’; Bale intones ‘She weaves all things together. I touched her long ago, without knowing her name.’ There’s probably a 14-year-old English student somewhere writing something very similar and thinking himself a genius. To the rest of us, this is just bad writing. Both in this and in the romantic scenes, Malick relies on the most leaden clichés, and I don’t understand why. As a result it’s impossible to care about the characters and what happens to them, and the film just floats on, apparently without end.

I can’t look for relief to the (quite large) supporting cast, because Malick has no interest in them. There is not one single developed supporting character in the film. A number of familiar British actors come and go without making much of an impression – the most underused is David Thewlis, who has two minutes of prominence as a sneering, one-dimensional posh English villain straight out of a Disney movie (‘We can’t allow cheek. Allow cheek, and we shall have chaos!’). I can’t speak as to the authenticity of the depiction of the Native Americans, but they, like the other minor characters, are basically window-dressing: we learn little about their way of life or their culture, and are left only with the broadest impression of the ‘noble savage’. As for the story, it is in essence fairly standard tragic love triangle business, which, like all romances, relies very heavily on the interest generated by the central partnership. Sadly, there is none.

It is perhaps a broader theme which Malick is more concerned with – something to do with a natural, Edenic paradise being spoiled by corrupt man. Presumably the film’s poetic evocations are meant to shed light on this, and there are many, many shots of the idyllic landscape: trees, rivers, the sea, birds, sunset, etc. (There is one terribly clumsy moment when Captain Smith is talking about the starving, miserable conditions of the settlers, and a shot is intercut of a yucky spider crawling over some fungus – get it? It’s a symbol!) These appear quite regularly as pauses during which the film breathes, and it is these sections which contribute chiefly towards the sense that Malick might refuse to ever actually allow his film to be over. It’s possible that I have become so jaded by the lack of characters and those awful voice-overs that I am unable to appreciate the beauty of the setting, but I’m afraid it all left me unmoved. Yes I suppose it was nicely photographed, but no more nicely than any number of nicely photographed films (at random: True Grit? Monsters? Any Attenborough documentaries?). I also find it difficult to believe that it’s necessary to be some kind of inspired hermit genius in order to create beauty by slowly panning across some trees, or a river, and playing a Mozart piano concerto over the top. The original score, what there is of it, mostly consists of the kind of gentle orchestral lilting you will have heard a thousand times before. There is no denying that there are moments of beauty in The New World, but they are not frequent enough, not affecting enough, and not original enough to either justify the film by themselves, or excuse its other failures.

There is some interest to be found in the editing, which frequently juxtaposes scenes together, perhaps a speech from one suddenly accompanying something completely different, and the audience is briefly off-balance – is this a flashback, a flashforward, a fantasy? Other than that, Kilcher’s performance, and all those lovely shots of trees, I don’t have much good to say about The New World. If you want to watch a slow, beautifully shot period film with majestic landscapes and a classical soundtrack not chosen by listening to Classic FM for ten minutes, watch the visionary Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Barry Lyndon. It offers all the aesthetic appeal of Malick’s film and more, plus it’s actually good.

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  1. yeah, maybe don’t go and see the tree of life…

    i enjoyed it tho. and days of heaven is awesome.

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