Tuesday, January 24, 2006
The New World v2.0
"Conscience is nuisance. A fly, a barking dog. If you don' t believe you have one, what trouble can it be to you?"
— Captain Argall (Yorick Van Wageningen, left) in The New World
There comes a time when you just have to surrender critical pride — which, let's face it, isn't worth much, in the grand scheme of things — and admit that you were just plain wrong. I'm freshly back from the official, apparently final, significantly improved 135-minute cut of Terrence Malick's retelling of the Pocahontas story, and I'm not sure I've ever stood so gratefully corrected, or had two such contrasting experiences of what was, fundamentally, the same work of art.
First, the mitigating circumstances. The cut screened to UK press before Christmas — some 20 minutes longer — had left me shuffling out with a poignant sense of disappointment, all the more poignant because, in fits and starts, it had me egging it on all the way through to greatness. Malick, I'll confess, seemed to me to be lazily retreading old ground from The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven. Worse, the movie had a rhythmically uncertain quality — both baggy and too choppy — which unhelpfully muddied its themes, leaving its now limber narrative out to dry, and left me flailing.
I should have worked harder. It's hardly as though this sharper cut leads you through it by the hand, exactly, but it had me completely under its spell this time, engaged my heart and mind, and again and again made me almost blush with the memory of how I'd misread it. It's been transformed from a film I kept on wanting to like more than I did into one I've ended up liking far, far more than I could ever realistically have hoped. I should know Malick well enough by now not to take any given snatch of voiceover as gospel, and I should have cottoned on, even wading through all the sun-dappled grass slightly in v1.0, to how beautifully the movie grapples with ideas of belonging, the question above all of who Pocahontas belongs to, and how generously it offers that question up as finally her own rather than the audience's to answer. I think this is the film's great theme.
I missed way too much of this first time round — I hear other critics, some of them wonderful critics, did too — and I'm kind of kicking myself, but mainly just jumping for joy at the opportunity to make proper amends, in print, this Friday. This experience is really a lesson to me: to have faith in the working practices of a great filmmaker, and not to rush to judgement on any slightly indistinct first viewing, particularly not when the movie's release was being so evidently compromised by the idiotic pressures of award-season rush and industry nail-chewing. And above all to trust in Malick, who is, after all, God. Hats off to those who managed to get the hang of The New World, which I still think presents plenty of thorny challenges, in a single sitting, but I reckon it was almost worth being disappointed by that earlier cut in order to be undisappointed by this one, and I'd urge anyone who felt similarly short-changed on a first viewing, of whichever print, to have another go. I should add one caveat: red-faced though it might appear, this isn't a complete volte-face, as I still think the movie is not quite, not quite, what it might have been. But after stomping on it with an immoderate B− two months ago, I'm buggered if I'm going to stick some monolithic, arbitrary grade on now. Some movies are beyond grading. Or beyond my grading, evidently. Praise be!