new world in australia

It's always a question if a film can move freely across country borders. This piece by Australian film critic Rose Capp seems to suggest that De Nieuwe Wereld (The New World) has made the journey without getting lost in translation.


It is difficult to think of a more marked contrast than that between Terence Malick’s expansive (and expensive) exploration of the 17th century Pocahontas story in The New World (2005) and Jaap van Heusden’s modestly scaled 2013 film of the same title. The former features a huge cast and depicts the natural world in elaborate detail. The small cast in van Heusden’s drama appear primarily in the sterile and claustrophobic interiors of the assertively modern Amsterdam airport. Yet both have an unlikely and compelling cross-cultural relationship as their central focus.

The New World is the Dutch writer/director’s second feature following the well-received cautionary corporate tale Win/Win (2010), and a series of accomplished shorts. Co-written with Rogier de Blok, van Heusden’s story focuses on a clearly unhappy central protagonist, Mirte (Bianca Krijgsman), whose strict personal rituals suggest a profound need to maintain some semblance of control over her miserable life. Mirte’s cleaning job at the airport asylum seeker processing area ensures she is witness to the desperation of those attempting to enter the country. It equally allows her to ruthlessly exploit their vulnerability for personal gain. Surprisingly, the recently widowed Luc (Isaka Sawadogo) manages to cut through her impassive demeanour and the two develope an unlikely alliance.

As with the corporate claustrophobia of Win/Win, The New World demonstrates van Heusden’s stated directorial preference for a “restricted environment” producing a dramatic, “pressure cooker” situation. The oppressively neutral confines of the airport detention area throw human pain and suffering – Mirte and the asylum seekers alike – into high relief. Long-term van Heusden collaborator, cinematographer Jan Moeskops, renders the chilly corridors and purposefully dehumanized spaces in coolly dispassionate detail. And as evidenced by his earlier work – including an intriguing series of mobile phone ‘Hamden-films’ featuring regular musical muse Minco Eggsman – van Heusden’s idiosyncratic eye and striking visual style serves his deceptively simple storyline well.

But what makes The New World ultimately so effective is its restrained pacing and the way in which audience expectations are subtly but consistently undermined. The gradual accretion of prosaic details – Mirte’s awkward visits to her estranged son, predictably dull days at work and lonely nights at home – make the developing friendship with Luc all the more surprising. Van Heusden made a calculated decision not to allow his lead actors to meet and then shot the story chronologically. Encouraging the rapport between Krijgsman and Sawadogo to realistically develop on screen arguably adds an additional layer of veracity to an already grimly realistic scenario. And in his attention to the minutiae of daily life, potent verisimilitude, and inspiration in actuality, van Heusden’s film suggests an affinity with the work of his central European compatriots, the Belgian Dardenne brothers. Shot through with a droll, understated humour and distinguished by beautifully restrained performances, van Heusden’s film is a definitive contrast to Malick’s lavish production and equally, a singular testament to the realities of the current ‘new world’.

Rose Capp is the Vice-President of the Film Critics Circle of Australia, a freelance writer on film and is currently undertaking a Ph.D at Flinders University.