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Capote a marvelous achievement

By Lady Liberty
web posted January 23, 2006

The New World

* out of ****

The New WorldIt goes without saying that I'm something of an American history buff. The New World appeared from its trailers to show a piece of some early American history in a more realistic way by far than Disney's Pocahontas cartoon, so despite some lackluster early reviews, I determined to see it. After having done so, I can only say that "realistic" is a real stretch, and that "lackluster" is too kind.

The New World tells the story of the first European settlers to arrive on the North American continent with the intent of a long term occupation there. The year is 1607; the place is along the coast of Virginia. Of course, the fact that the area is already occupied doesn't phase the British who arrive aboard three ships after a long and almost hopeless journey across the Atlantic.

Expedition leader, Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) is delighted to reach the shore, and promptly determines a suitable place for a settlement. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), a former military man, is among the crew, though his arrival on shore is less ostentatious than most: he's in chains, and due to be hung for mutiny. But as the only man with soldiering experience along, Captain Newport excuses Smith from execution though he makes it clear that Smith lives only on his sufferance.

To his credit, Smith does work alongside the other men to build protective walls and shelter. He also finds himself interested in exchanges with the Algonquin Indians, known as "naturals" among the British. Before long, Newport sends Smith on a mission to a large Indian village upriver to see if he can establish some sort of a trade agreement between the two groups. Unfortunately, Smith once again arrives at his destination as a prisoner after Indian warriors capture him on the way.

The great Chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg) orders that Smith be killed, but Powhatan's favorite daughter, Pocahontas (newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher) throws herself between Smith and the men who would carry out Powhatan's sentence. Powhatan not only spares Smith on his daughter's request, but assigns her to learn all she can about these newcomers to their lands. Along the course of learning more about each other's cultures, the two become close and eventually fall in love.

After months of living among the Indians, Smith is returned to the settlement to find things have not been going well. Captain Newport has returned to England for supplies and more men, while those remaining behind are cold and hungry. Far from being welcomed, Smith is accused of everything from selfishness to collaboration with an enemy. But when the Indians offer food and warm clothing, there's a temporary truce between the white men and the Indians, and the settlers and Smith.

When Captain Newport eventually returns, however, and as the settlement begins its inevitable expansion, Chief Powhatan and his advisors realize that the white men aren't there for a visit but rather for the long term. Between the arrogance of the Europeans and the desire of the Indians to see them gone, it's not a big surprise that conflict arises. At the center of everything lies the Indian princess, Pocahontas, her love for Smith, and Smith's own desires to do what's best for all concerned including Pocahontas who he loves in return. But thwarting them both are British expansionism and a culture clash that can only result in the death of one of them.

The settings for The New World are lush and incredibly beautiful. Filmed largely on location in the tidewater region of Virginia, it's almost possible to imagine how the land must have looked to those first arriving from England. The costuming is some of the best I've ever seen, not only with the styles but with all the dirt and hard wear and tear on clothing that was part and parcel of life at that time. The sets, too, are excellent, from the cold and drafty English cabins to the far cozier Indian shelters.

Colin Farrell does a credible job of portraying the conflicted adventurer, John Smith, while Q'orianka Kilcher — an unbelievably young 14 when filming began — is luminous onscreen. Christopher Plummer is just as authoritative as he needs to be, while August Schellenberg offers both dignity and command to the presence of Powhatan. Christian Bale (who plays aristocrat turned Virginia tobacco farmer, John Rolfe) is especially good with his hesitance and his earnest desires clearly flickering across his expressive face.

So what's wrong with the movie? The direction, the script, and the editing. The story is told in uneven snippets of a spoken line here or there; a particularly pretty view without other comment; softly spoken voiceovers that suddenly appear and disappear in some sort of random fashion; and editing that takes great jumps in time or place with little if any explanation or warning. None of these techniques are bad and can even enhance a film when done well. Unfortunately, these too often have little rhyme and less reason in this movie, and at best they're almost criminally overused.

Though there's much conflict and hardship inherent in this story on both personal and group levels, the movie is largely incredibly slow moving and dull (though as I said, the scenery is pretty). The beginning is far too slow; the end is far too rushed. (Pocahontas' entire journey over the sea is shown with one quick edit showing us a picture of some water). Worst of all, while it has little to do with the actual quality of the film, the film is presented as being at least somewhat realistic (this is further brought home by the notes at the end of the film which tells us what happened afterward to the main characters) and it isn't. It does, in fact, perpetuate what is considered by most to be pure American mythology (click here for more on the real story).

The New World had the opportunity to be an exciting film, but it's not. It had the chance to educate people, but it doesn't. No matter how pretty it is, those failures more than counterbalance the rest. The New World frankly isn't worth either your time or the price of a ticket.

POLITICAL NOTES: While it's almost de rigueur these days to allege European society superiority complexes and to beat our collective breasts over them, there are some other things in the film that are far more poignant for those who pause to consider them. This is especially true when you take into consideration the irony that many were willing to chance emigrating to the new world for the chance to be free — or at least more so than they'd been in the past.

In one scene, one of the women of the Jamestown settlement dresses Pocahontas in English-style clothing and teaches her to walk in confining shoes (Kilcher said in an interview that she deliberately had the shoes made a size too small so that she could adequately convey the great discomfort the girl must have felt when her feet were forced into them and she took her first painful steps). Her native religion was also supplanted by Christianity which I strongly suspect was as coerced as were the clothes. The Anglicized Pocahontas was still a woman with great dignity and presence, but the laughing free spirit that she had been was gone.

The scene to me that really said it all, though, was one in which captured animals in wire cages were presented to the Royal Court. One keeper showed off a captive eagle to their majesties, and the court very politely and with not a little boredom applauded the magnificent bird even as it fluttered against its restraints. The symbolism, whether intended or not, broke my heart.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The New World is rated PG-13 for "some intense battle sequences." While probably too frightening (and complicated) for little ones, there's nothing so graphic that the average 10 year-old couldn't see the movie without harm. I would, however, argue strenuously against the damage such a movie could do to children's understanding of history in its very believability. All that's right about it will only serve to further entrench everything that's wrong. More importantly for audiences of all ages is the fact that the movie simply falls well short of where it could have — and should have — been. Some movies are must sees; some are worthy of later rentals. This one, sadly, is neither.


**** out of ****

CapoteAs awards season gets well underway (Academy Award nominations are due to be announced at the end of January), I've been gearing up myself to make sure that I see as many of the nominated (and likely to be nominated) films as possible. After the recent Golden Globe winners were announced, it was abundantly clear that Capote had to be near the top of my list. Though Capote isn't showing in wide release, it was featured at a theatre in a city near me and I decided it was now or never, and made the trip.

Truman Capote (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) was a well known — and well regarded — author in the 1940's and 1950's. His fiction ("Breakfast at Tiffany's" among his offerings) had made him famous, and as such he could write largely as he pleased. What he found inspiring one day in 1959 was a story he found in the New York Times of a horrific murder that took place in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas.

Capote and his childhood friend and sometime research assistant, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) — who became a famous writer in her own right with her Pulitzer prize-winning "To Kill a Mockingbird" — traveled by train to Kansas to learn more. It was Capote's intent, he told his publisher (William Shawn), to talk to the people of Holcomb to find out how such a tragedy was affecting them all. It did not, he assured the publisher, even matter if the murderer or murderers was ever caught.

Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), on the other hand, cared very much if the crime was solved. As such, Capote's attitude didn't endear him to the lawman. Fortunately for Capote's research, Dewey's wife Marie (Amy Ryan) was a fan and he gained some entry into the investigation accordingly. Meanwhile, Lee's manner endeared her to many including some students who were able to offer significant insight into the crime and its aftermath.

Though Capote's intentions may have been precisely as he described, when two suspects were captured he immediately felt the need to broaden his scope by learning more about the men. Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) were interesting case studies for Capote if nothing else. But the deeper Capote got into their past and present, the more their underlying motivations mattered to him. He also felt a reluctant kinship with one of them. Most important of all, he was determined to discover what really happened in that Kansas farmhouse on November 14, 1959.

In his zeal to get more and more of the story and to write a book Capote himself said was going to be so good that sometimes it took his breath away, he also alienated some of his nearest and dearest friends including his partner, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood). Still, no matter the sacrifices, Capote can't finish his writing and let go of his obsession until he, himself, knows how the story will end. And with his bizarre friendship with one of the two accused men, he spares no effort — nor any personal or professional relationships — in his attempts to do just that.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama. I'd been pulling for Heath Ledger whose performance in Brokeback Mountain is nothing short of amazing. But now that I've seen Hoffman in action as the star of Capote, I have to say the award was well deserved. He's absolutely astounding as the small man with the big talent and the even bigger ego that was Truman Capote. Despite the brilliance of his performance, Catherine Keener holds her own as the ever-patient friend and confidant; Chris Cooper — an Oscar winner himself — and his Agent Dewey is just gruff enough even as he's clearly far too personally involved in the case.

The direction is beautifully handled with performances that are extraordinarily emotional at times but without ever being over the top, and the editing is literally flawless. Scenes of the bare windswept Kansas plains are interspersed with close-ups of the lives of those who live there; smoke-filled parties juxtapose with stark jail cells. The script is wonderful — funny, frightening, and horribly, unbearably sad — and moves along briskly in a movie that runs just over 90 minutes in length. The penultimate scenes are, as Capote believed his book would be, enough to take your breath away — and they did.

Sure, the moviemakers had a really good story to work with, one which needed little if any fictional embellishment (to their credit, from some research after the fact I learned that the historical accuracy of the film holds up pretty well), and it seemed a lock that this would be a good movie. It's also true that every year, there are some few very, very good films released. But nearly every year, even among the best, there's one film that stands out. For me, Capote is that one, and I can't recommend it highly enough (that the movie wasn't nominated for a Golden Globe along with its star is, in my mind, a huge oversight).

POLITICAL NOTES: There are some prejudices, common enough in the late 1950's and early 1960's, depicted in the film, but they're not emphasized. In fact, Capote's patently obvious homosexuality isn't addressed, either. If there's any item of note here, it's that neither of these things are emphasized — nor should they be. The story is elsewhere. At a time when homosexuality is, at times, focused on purely for the sake of showing a filmmaker isn't afraid of that focus, it's refreshing to see a movie where it exists but it just doesn't matter. And it doesn't.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Capote is rated R for "some violent images and brief strong language." The images, while brief, are graphic. But just as importantly, the subject matter itself doesn't lend itself well to entertainment for children and most wouldn't find it remotely interesting anyway. For the intelligent child of about age 14 and up, though, Capote offers a glimpse into history and a look at some fascinating human foibles, flaws, gifts, and motivations. And for all who enjoy a good drama, it doesn't get any better than Capote.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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