There is an overused saying in the film criticism world that goes something like this: “this is a film that can’t just be seen, it has to be experienced.” I believe that Terrence Malick’s films are some of the rare cases in which this is actually true, and The New World is no exception. In terms of Malick’s filmography, I wasn’t really planning on seeing this one next (I had my eyes set on The Tree of Life), but sometimes you have to take what you can get. Knowing that it was about Pocahontas, I wasn’t too excited. I was hoping for some nice visuals, I had no idea I was going to get a lead character this great and a story to match.
The New World has a lot of signature Malick elements. You have gorgeous cinematography for one, but that’s basically a given with him. There is also a love triangle, not a volatile as the one in Days of Heaven but it is still there. He also gives us voice over narration, but unlike his first two films it is spread across multiple characters. The story is not told from only one viewpoint, but many. It is especially important in this film because not all of the characters speak the same language. We really need the voice overs to tell us how Pocahontas in particular is feeling, because in the early stages of the film she can’t verbalize her feelings in a way the other characters will understand. Of course, there is a lot of nature imagery as well. He doesn’t cut away to it in a perplexing way very much in this film; it seems relatively straightforward.
The film begins with the arrival of the English settlers. Though he was locked up on the ship for some sort of mutiny, Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) is pardoned. After miserably failing to adequately provide for themselves, Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) sends Smith to ask the Native Americans, or “naturals” as they call them, for help, while he goes back to England for more supplies. He won’t return until Spring, so the colonists must survive until then. Upon meeting the Native Americans, his life is threatened and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) saves him.
Smith stays with the Native Americans for a while, which seems very unlikely given that the king doesn’t seem to trust him at all. Regardless, he is somewhat assimilated into their culture for a short time. As Pocahontas and Smith learn more about each other, they also fall in love. Smith is sent back to his colony, as is racked with doubt about his relationship with Pocahontas. He wonders if he’s done the right thing. After a mutiny, he is chosen to lead the colony. This creates an even bigger conflict of interest than was already present. Added to that, Pocahontas’ father is not pleased with her helping out the colonists through the winter.
He banishes her because he can’t bring himself to kill her. Pocahontas runs to Smith in fear, and runs smack dab into a really great scene. They are talking about what they should do; neither of them has a very good answer. They’re confused, and Pocahontas hasn’t learned very much English yet so she can only communicate a certain amount. It’s night and there is a fire. Smith’s face is half in shadow, showing the divide in his loyalties between the colony and Pocahontas. The editing gets more and more chaotic as the scene continues. Alternating jump cuts show them pulling towards and away from each other. The editing conveys their struggle to communicate better than their words can. There are other scenes where jump cuts are featured prominently, but this is the best example in my opinion.
With all of this turmoil and uncertainty in their relationship and within the colony, Smith is called back to England. He goes, and informs a colonist to tell Pocahontas that he has drowned within two months. Obviously this is to give her closure, but this “tell people I’m dead when I’m really not” thing is generally a bad idea. It comes back to haunt them later. Pocahontas sinks into despair. When John Rolfe (Christian Bale), first sees her “she was regarded as someone finished, lost, broken. She seemed barely to notice of the others about her.” Yet she still helps a man in the pillory by giving him a drink of water. Rolfe knows she is not lost. He sets out to help her, and in getting to know her, falls in love with her as well.
With Smith, the two of them idolized each other. They never fully understood their relationship, though they were undoubtedly attracted to each other. At first, Pocahontas’s relationship with Rolfe isn’t a whole lot better. It’s obvious that she’s becoming happier though, even if she doesn’t actually love him. The film has a surprise in store for us though; even though it’s usually not a good idea to marry someone in the hopes that you will grow to love them, that’s actually what happens here. Pocahontas calls Rolfe her “good tree. He shelters me. I lie in his shade.” And it’s true. He can relate to her a level that Smith never could, and helps her through her sorrow. Most importantly, he allows her what she wants in the end.
A unique part of this film for me was that I was actually able to identify with Pocahontas quite a bit, which is surprising. One, in the Malick films I’ve seen thus far I have never really felt for the characters in a big way. Second, and this observation really goes both ways, Pocahontas actually does seem divine some times. She’s just such a good and innocent person, and she never looses this at any point in the film. Nevertheless, she still has problems and I sympathized with her quite a bit. Even when she is depressed over Smith’s absence, she still seems in perfect harmony with everything around her. In a more conventional film of this subject matter, one would have to be constantly on the lookout for Pocahontas to be broken down by the white people, but that never happens because she’s such a strong person. She learns to speak English, she learns to read, she wears full length dresses and shoes, she lives in England, but it doesn’t matter. She’s still herself. If she wants to go climb a tree, she’ll do it, but that doesn’t mean she can’t learn to read either. In this film, for Pocahontas at least, being a “natural” or more English aren’t mutually exclusive. Everyone is enchanted by her, including the audience. Q’orianka Kilcher’s performance is similarly amazing; it’s one of those performances that doesn’t feel like a performance at all. Incredibly, she was fourteen when the film was made.
Something I immensely enjoy about Malick’s films is both present here and in Days of Heaven: when he creates seemingly routine conflicts between his characters and has them actually realize where they went wrong. In Days of Heaven I was surprised that Richard Gere’s character realized that he was wrong to be jealous of Sam Shepard’s character when he put his girlfriend in the situation in the first place. It’s obvious, but characters in films don’t always realize these things. Pocahontas fully realizes that she belongs with Rolfe, Rolfe realizes that he should not try to make Pocahontas love him but instead do what’s best for her, and Smith realizes what an idiot he was being in not trying to discuss his problems with Pocahontas when he had the chance. Instead he lied, and lost her forever. Altogether, it is a very self-aware ending, and that’s very comforting to me.
The New World is an incredibly beautiful film, both in its visuals and in its story. Ultimately it seems to me to be about knowing what’s best for yourself and others and then doing it. The theme of discovery is also beautifully presented, in England, America, and in the relationships of the characters. It’s a film that’s a wonder to watch and think about. I would definitely recommend it to any Malick fan, or film fan in general. And once again, I lament the fact that a theater viewing is most likely impossible.
“A nature like yours can turn trouble into good. All this sorrow will give ye strength, and point you on a higher way. Think of tree, how it grows ’round its roots. If a branch breaks off, it don’t starve, but keeps reaching towards the light.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars
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