Speaking as one who feels Terrence Malick’s latest was not just the best film of last year, but one of the greatest I have ever seen, I didn’t want him to cut so much as a frame from the version that opened in limited release over Christmas. Happily — if strangely — the new, leaner version, opening nationwide on Friday, is not merely a “shorter cut,” but a whole new draft of the film. Malick has re-created many scenes anew using alternate takes, restoring once-deleted bits of dialogue, moving events around into fresh and more propulsive juxtapositions, which overall emphasize the passionate saga of love between Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) and the social-climbing adventurer John Smith (Colin Farrell), as well as her later, more reticent but enlightened courtship with the rock-steady widower John Rolfe (Christian Bale).
Not one bug, bird in flight nor blade of grass has been lost to the cutting-room floor in the process — but mysteriously, the final result clocks in 15 minutes lighter. This affirms for me that what we have here is a case of Malick himself wrestling honestly with a living creation, and not some panicked studio cabal at his back suffering over lost popcorn sales.
According to The New York Times, Malick is preparing a three-hour DVD edition of the film as well, which will restore materials from the limited release version, and add yet another half hour. Having read Malick’s original screenplay as part of an essay I’m preparing for the Writer’s Guild of America’s magazine, Written By, I expect that those as-yet-unseen scenes may greatly amplify the film’s philosophical dimension, restoring eloquence and complexity to such characters as the British expedition leader, Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer); the wise, tough-minded Algonquinan emperor, Powhattan (August Schellenberg); and his less patient brother, Opechancanough (Wes Studi). Where this newly swift unfolding of the tale mates alien civilizations as a matter of the heart, a version dilated to include the full scale of Malick’s original intentions could render more symphonic the film’s meditations on history, and this world we’ve inherited.
Everything great about The New World is still in force: the nonverbal riches in every moment of eye contact, however hostile or tender; and the sensation, reinforced by a superb ensemble of committed actors, set-builders and crew working entirely without artificial light, that we are transcending time, inhabiting a vast uncertain present that merely happens to be dated 1607.