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Review: O tedious 'New World'

Photography beautiful, but story is deadly

By Paul Clinton
For CNN.com

Farrell
Colin Farrell plays Capt. John Smith in "The New World."

FACT BOX

'The New World'

Starring: Colin Farrell, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer

Directed and written by: Terrence Malick

Studio: New Line

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Review
Terrence Malick
Colin Farrell

(CNN) -- By 1607, the civilized world knew the earth was not flat. Unfortunately, nobody passed that tidbit of information along to writer-director Terrence Malick.

Malick's new film, "The New World" -- only his fourth in 32 years -- is as flat as a flapjack. This ponderous film -- about the settlement of the Jamestown colony by the British and the love story of Capt. John Smith and the Indian princess Pocahontas -- almost totally lacks exposition and offers colorless characters beyond the main leads, leaving the audience with little to hold on to.

It's a shame, because other aspects of the film are brilliant. Emmanuel Lubazki's cinematography is utterly stunning. Jack Frisk's production design and Jacqueline West's costume design are flawless. They truly capture how raw life must have been like for the 103 original settlers struggling to carve an existence out of the pristine -- and at times unforgiving -- wilderness of Virginia 400 years ago.

The story, such as it is, is extremely unfocused and unfolds mainly through a muddled and jerky narrative told -- for the most part -- in voice-over by Smith (Colin Farrell), Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher, 14 at the time of filming), and later by John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who eventually married Pocahontas.

In the dawning years of the 17th century, three English ships financed by the London Virginia Company crossed the Atlantic looking for gold and a shortcut to the South Seas. They were sorely disappointed on both counts. What they found instead was a land ruled by a powerful man, Chief Powhatan.

When Smith leads a food-gathering expedition he is captured by Powhatan's tribe and escapes death only because of the intervention of Powhatan's favorite child, Pocahontas. She teaches him the ways of her culture and months later he returns to Jamestown.

Later, when Powhatan discovers that the settlers actually intend to stay, he prepares for war. Pocahontas warns Smith of the impending attack and is banned from her people forever. Eventually the English and Smith take her in.

Smith is later ordered to head an exploration of the northern coast of America, as the British are still searching for a pathway to the South Seas. He arranges for Pocahontas to be told he died at sea.

Heartbroken, she eventually meets and falls in love with another Englishman, Rolfe, with whom she has a son. He took her to England where she was received by the King and Queen. Tragically she died before she could return to Virginia.

That's the story. But Malick can't decide whether he's making a nature film, a love story or an action/adventure flick.

There are endless shots of waving grain and dripping leaves, interspersed with bloody battles between the Native Americans (called Naturals in the film) and the settlers. The budding romance between Smith and Pocahontas s-l-o-w-l-y evolves over the course of about two-thirds of the film. The pacing of the film is enough to kill off any interest in the beauty of its images.

Watching "The New World" is like watching a snail cross an eight-lane highway. Perhaps there's a director, or editor, who could make that concept enthralling, but as for me, I kept longing that Jerry Bruckheimer would speed along in a Hummer and squish it flat.

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