Director Terrence Malick's "New World" is a slow, moody retelling of the Pocahontas legend that is long on atmosphere but short on story.
Writer/director Terrence Malick moves at his own deliberate pace. And so does "The New World," his meandering meditation on the John Smith-Pocahontas love story.
In Malick's concept of time, this movie comes right on the heels of his 1998 war epic "The Thin Red Line," which trailed its predecessor, "Days of Heaven," by a whopping 20 years. But even though he might be working a little faster -- at least, by his standards -- he hasn't done much to speed the pacing of the narrative, which almost seems to unfold in real time.
The result is a brooding contemplation of love amid a culture clash that is likely to appeal most to viewers who prefer mood over content. Malick trimmed 16 minutes from the version that critics saw, but the pacing is still very languid.
It's clear that Malick doesn't intend this as a history lesson -- the story is rather sketchy -- but his style ends up being accurate in one regard. When they first meet, Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) spend a lot of quiet time together because of the language barrier. The audience sits there with them, listening to the birds chirp in the background.
This lasts for about 10 minutes, which is plenty. By then we're ready to chuck credibility out the window and are happy that after just two lessons Pocahontas assumes a perfect command of English.
Malick has a terrific cinematic eye, which he displays again. Shot near the original Jamestown settlement in Virginia, the film is full of tall grasses that sway and leaves that flutter. Sometimes one gets the feeling that the actors are getting in the way of the scenery.
Newcomer Kilcher has a charismatic screen presence. And, as usual, Farrell ("Alexander") oozes machismo. While that might explain the initial attraction between their characters, Malick provides little insight into their other motivations or those of anyone else. He employs a voice-over narration, but that is used more for philosophical musing than for imparting information.
Malick appears to consider this an epic tale, but beyond its 2-hour-plus length, the film never quite reaches the scale he's after. We might be moved emotionally from time to time, but we're never awed.
The New World
**½ out of four stars
The setup: A metaphysical meditation on the story of John Smith and Pocahontas.
What works: The atmosphere of the setting is so strong that we almost feeel as if were in the woods with them. What doesnt: The narrative struggles to find energy. Great line: There is only this. All else is unreal. Rating: PG-13; violence.