The New World

Year of Release: 2005     Directed by Terrence Malick.  Starring Colin Farell, Q’Orianka Kilcher, Christopher Plummer, and Christian Bale.

The New World is Terrence Malick’s poetic and meditative telling of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 and the subsequent fictionalized love story between Pocahontas and John Smith, and later John Rolfe.

In Malick’s film, John Smith (Colin Farell) is not a brazen expedition leader, but a reclusive and thoughtful individual.  Smith is portrayed as an outcast from the beginning.  He is first seen in the ship’s stockade and supposed to be hanged upon landing for mutinous remarks.  The captain (Christopher Plummer) has a change of heart and, after pardoning Smith, selects him to meet with the leader of the Native Americans to discuss trading for provisions.  The mission fits Smith’s character; the outcast is cast out into the wilderness to risk his life after near execution.  While living among the naturals, as the British call them, Smith begins to feel more at home as he learns the ways of this new land.  But once he settles into the lifestyle and begins romancing the chief’s daughter Pocahontas, (Q’Orianka Kilcher) Smith feels just as awkward about his new situation as he did about his previous one.  Smith’s reclusiveness and desire for adventure stay with him throughout the film.  Towards the end of the film, one character asks Smith if he ever found what he treasures, and he responds, “I may have passed it.”

Kilcher is incredible as Pocahontas.  She gives an understated performance that captures the character’s vulnerability and strength, her insecurity and resolution.  The understated performance also captures Pocahontas’ wonder and fear as she discovers English culture.  While she does suffer heartbreak, loss, and mistreatment, she also discovers joy and compassion.  Her two suitors represent two aspects of the new world Pocahontas discovers.  While one of them brings suffering, the other brings redemption.

There are two new worlds in this film, and Malick skillfully balances their portrayal and revelation.  The first half of the film concerns Smith’s discovery of America and the customs of the natives as he falls in love with Pocahontas.  The second half of the film depicts Pocahontas as she discovers English customs and culture.  During this time, she leaves her love for Smith in her old world, and embraces John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and the new world that he introduces to her.  The first thing that Smith saw in the village was the homes of the Native Americans.  Pocahontas first admires the architecture of the British when she goes to England.  When Smith first arrived at her village, Pocahontas saved his life through a surprise appearance and gesture of kindness.  He was released from his bonds and could be free among her people as a result.  At the end of the film Smith repays the debt through a surprise appearance to Pocahontas, which releases her from old bonds, allowing her to find happiness in his world.  Both Pocahontas and Smith have extensive voiceovers, letting the viewer learn their innermost thoughts as they discover their new worlds.

Despite marvelous discoveries, the most important thing in either world is connections and relationships.  For all the beauty and potential of America, Smith is most preoccupied with Pocahontas.  Rolfe is equally smitten when meets her, and he does not care in which world they live as long as they are together.  Pocahontas tries to foster community between her people and the settlers, and fears for the safety of both groups.

There are no stereotypes in the film.  All the characters that Malick created have believable emotions and actions.  There are no overtly malicious villains like Radcliffe in the dreadful Disney Pocahontas.  Antagonistic characters are driven by human emotions such as fear or destitution.  The Native Americans are rightfully concerned about the presence of the English.  Both groups are capable of tremendous violence but also kindness.  Christian Bale’s Rolfe is one of the most respectful portrayals of an onscreen Christian.  Even though he has all the markings of a stereotypical villain who ruins the romance between the crossed lovers, Rolfe is compassionate and caring.  He brings hope, light, and love to Pocahontas, even to the point that he risks losing her by allowing her to leave.

The only major flaw with the film is that Malick takes too much for granted regarding the viewer’s knowledge of American history.   Pocahontas and John Rolfe are never actually named; it is assumed the viewer will automatically know who they are.  Other historical names are quickly tossed around as the characters build the Jamestown settlement, but the viewer is not given enough time to determine who is who.  It does not really matter, because the focus of the story is on Smith, Pocahontas, and Rolfe.  But the historical dabbling seems slightly out of place without a little more connection to the rest of the film.

On the other hand, no director whom I can think of captures the beauty of nature better than Malick.  If one stopped his films at any point, the picture on screen would make a breathtaking photo that could be framed on its own.  Malick’s cinematography creates a mesmerizing, relaxing, and engaging atmosphere that transports the viewer through the world of the film.  This world contains fish swimming through the water, a sunset across a lake, sunlight pouring through the branches of a forest, a rippling brook, the swirling first snowflakes of Winter, new buds forming as Spring arrives, well-kept English gardens, and the royal courts.  All of these elements are portrayed with such care and appreciation for their natural beauty that the viewer almost feels as if he is there basking in the glory of nature.

The use of Wagner adds greatly to the film; Malick selected some of the best possible excerpts.  The main theme is from the opening of Das Rheingold, a simple melody and harmony played by the horns and strings.  It has a motionless, yet awestruck quality that grows in dynamic and in range as the settlers appreciate more of the new world.  James Horner contributes to the score with Smith’s theme, a melancholic melody for solo piano that captures his reserved nature.  It is also out of place in comparison to the rest of the score as Smith feels out of place among the Englishmen and among the natives.

The New World is more than a fictionalized retelling of an historic event.  It poetically captures the beauty of both American and England in 1607, bringing the viewer into the new worlds and allowing him to discover them along with the characters, while watching a poignantly filmed romance as if he is discovering another beautiful new world.

Content Advisory: Some brief but intense combative violence and fleeting shots of naturalistic partial nudity.                     MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A

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