Dir/scr: Terrence Malick. US. 2005. 150mins.

A sweeping historical narrative and exquisitely renderedlove story, Terrence Malick's The New World is a majestic, electrifying feature experience that forsome will rank as the most artistically accomplished US studio release this year.

Demanding and complex, it possessesextraordinary beauty and comes close to silent cinema, with its emphasis on landscapeart, physical gesture and the beauty of the human face. It also marks the strongestand most emotionally effective welding of Malick's philosophicalideas and moral themes to his strong personal style.

The persuasive and detailed lovestory yields a clearer narrative line, making it more accessible and emotionallyresonant than Malick's previous work,the World War Two feature The Thin Red Line.

Though the enigmatic, reclusiveMalick refuses to promote his films, The New World is certain to figure in end-of-yearawards discussion, with likely nominations in cinematography, art direction, costumedesign, score, directing and writing among others.

The film also features the strongestperformance to date by Colin Farrell as the intrepid English explorer John Smith,and an astonishing debut from 15-year-old unknown Q'oriankaKilcher as the expressive Powhatan princess Pocahontas,who dominates the powerful, mournful final act.

The New World is a reverie, a poem and, because of its structure and form, may be dismissedby more populist critics - hankering for something less reflective - as pretentiousart cinema. Others however are likely to regard it as a beautiful piece of work.

New Line Cinema is releasingthe $40m production on Christmas Day in New York and Los Angeles in advance of itswider Jan 13 release. There, The Thin RedLine took $36m but had greater star wattage in the form of Sean Penn, WoodyHarrelson, Nick Nolte and - however brief their appearances- George Clooney and John Travolta to draw in the more mainstream non-Malick crowd.

In Europe, where Malick is revered - TheThin Red Line captured the Golden Bear at Berlin in 1999 - followers will similarlywelcome only his fourth film in 32 years, although to more casual cinemagoers the17th-century founding of America is likely to have less appeal than the Americansbattling the Japanese in the Pacific.

Malick's characteristic themes ' doomed love, the death of nature,restrictive social order ' are illustrated visually, with the prowling, constantlymoving camera alert to mood, colour and shape.

Like the director's earlier features,The New World is a period film that developsa primal, throbbing power not only in the immaculate visuals, but also through anextensive use of voiceover.

Malick shifts among the interior reflections of Smith, Pocahontasand John Rolfe (Bale), a wealthy tobacco farmer, catchingtheir philosophical ruminations and moral enquiries to underline the larger narrativeof conquest and expansion.

The story is direct and elemental,couched in concrete themes of love, war and death. Beginning in 1607, in Virginia,with the arrival of three ships from England, and ending about 10 years later inLondon, it deftly explores the social, personal and cultural upheaval caused bythe European settlers and the conflicts with the indigenous Powhatan tribes theyviolently displaced.

Smith is a brilliant warriorand soldier of fortune, though also impudent and anti-authoritarian. Saved fromhanging through the intervention of Christopher Newport (Plummer), he is sent asan emissary for a trade alliance with the powerful supreme chief, Powhatan (Schellenberg).

The rest of his party killed,Smith seems certain to die until Pocahontas, the chief's beautiful, youngest daughter,intercedes on his behalf. The moment initiates their relationship. In a highly evocative,even erotic passage, Malick shows their avid willingnessto learn each other's language, their communication developed through gesture andhand rhythms.

But the outbreak of hostilitiesover the settlers' usurping the land collapses their idyllic Eden. In the muted,superbly choreographed battle sequences, Malick alternatesthe carnage with shots of tranquil interludes of landscape, sky and cloud formationsthat deepens the feeling of loss and disruption. He also underscores the emotionalconsequence of death, revealing the elaborate burial ritual Powhatan warriors undertaketo honour their war casualties.

With Smith's forced departurefrom Jamestown, the emotional balance of the piece shifts to Pocahontas, and shecarries it tenderly. In Kilcher's understated, highlyimaginative work, she is no longer an abstract representation of exotic beauty buta vibrant woman marked by grit, resourcefulness and resiliency.

Her conversion to Christianity,shown by her unease at wearing Western clothes, or her grief caused by her separationfrom Smith and the melancholy exposed in her marriage to Rolfe,achieves an overpowering sadness and profound regret.

Shot by gifted cinematographerEmmanuel Lubezki (Ali),The New World has extended movements withoutdialogue, and the discontinuous arrangement of shots boldly compresses time andspace. It creates a hallucinatory visual texture that draws the audience deeperand deeper into the storytelling rhythm.

Malick is a master of subtlety and movement, and he deftly bindsthe disparate pieces, accommodating and lending personal detail and shape to JackFisk's evocative production design, Jacqueline West's vivid costumes and James Horner'smuscular, tremulous score.

Production companies
New Line Cinema
Sunflower Productions
Sarah Green Film Corp
First Foot Films
The Virginia Company

US distribution
New Line Cinema

International sales
New Line Cinema

Executive producers
Bill Mechanic
Rolf Mittweg
Toby Emmerich
Mark Ordesky
Trish Hofmann

Sarah Green

Emmanuel Lubezki

Production design
Jack Fisk

Richard Chew
Hank Corwin
Saar Klein
Mark Yoshikawa

Art direction
David Crank

James Horner

Main cast
Colin Farrell
Q'orianka Kilcher
Christopher Plummer
Christian Bale
August Schellenberg
Wes Studi
David Thewlis
Yorick Van Wageningen
Ben Mendelsohn
Raoul Trujillo
Brian F O'Byrne
Irene Bedard
John Savage
Jamie Harris
Alex Rice
Michael Greyeyes
Kalani Queypo
Noah Taylor
Jonathan Pryce
Alexandra Malick