Malick's Romanticism

Colin Farrell gazing at Q'orianka Kilcher in The New World (dir. Terrence Malick, 2005).

“This is clearly not meant to be an historical account or an epic adventure tale; it’s a dream-movie in which the images wash over you in insistent, steady rhythms.”  So I wrote of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) when I first saw it back in 2009.  Having recently rewatched the film on Blu-ray, I stand by the second half of that statement—it’s as ravishingly beautiful a feat of direction, cinematography, and editing as Malick has ever made.  I might qualify that first half, though.  The film is an historical account of the founding of Jamestown; it’s more accurate to say that Malick, in typical fashion, frames his historical subject matter as a Romantic allegory.  In other words, Malick’s approach to history is mythic rather than factual.  The contact between white European settlers and indigenous Americans is staged as a romantic tragedy.  Just as the childlike purity of the romance between John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahtontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) leads inevitably to betrayal and heartbreak, the innocent curiosity with which colonists and natives (literally) touch each other at the beginning of the film eventually gives way to conflict and bloodshed.  For Malick—in this film and in others like The Tree of Life—history is a series of falls from grace, as individual people, nations, and entire species perpetually kill the things they love.    

An argument could be made that Malick depicts the new world with the same Eurocentric biases that one finds in texts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, treating it as an unspoiled paradise—Rousseau’s state of nature.  His shots of the American landscape, set to the strains of Wagner’s Das Rheingold overture and photographed by the great Emmanuel Lubezki, are like moving Romantic paintings, and his camera lingers on the bodies of Kilcher and her fellow Native actors with the tendresse of Gaugin.  (Gaugin’s work was a visual inspiration for the filmmakers.)  But the loveliness and grandeur of the film don’t prevent Malick from shying away from the physical and psychological violence of imperial conquest.  Images such as those of British colonists casually shooting Native tribesmen in the back or Pocahontas wincing as she is made to wash her face with soap for the first time speak for themselves, and pointedly.  The poetry of Malick the Romantic sits side by side with the unsentimental directness of Malick the realist.

The Romantic strain of The New World comes through most palpably in Colin Farrell’s performance as John Smith, whose doomed love affair with the teenage Pocahontas (he abandons her and, believing him to be dead, she marries John Rolfe, played by Christian Bale) is achingly rendered.  In a film of very little dialogue, Farrell’s eyes are two dark pools of longing, and his permanently furrowed brow suggests a man riven by fear and desire.  The conflicted feelings written onto Farrell’s face are made to contrast with the radiant openness of Kilcher’s in the early scenes, until hers too is colored by the pain of conflict and loss.  Both suffer a loss of innocence over the course of the film.  The New World follows a neatly symmetrical pattern: it begins with Smith crossing the Atlantic to meet Pocahontas in the golden wheatfields of Virginia and ends with them meeting after a long absence in England, his home country, in a manicured landscape garden under a steel-gray sky.  There are two new worlds in this film, two transatlantic crossings, and two parallel narratives—his and hers—in which Malick’s themes of transformation and cultural cross-pollination are doubled.  The poignant tone of the ending has everything do with the realization—ours and theirs—that, in the words of Yeats, everything is “changed utterly; a terrible beauty is born.”        

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