A brave new world
Director takes on American history in latest film
Terrence Malick’s much-anticipated new film takes up the poetic impulse and the epic size of his previous films (Days of Heaven, 1978, and The Thin Red Line, 1998), and the results are thoroughly impressive and unique, even though at times maybe a little perplexing. This time he takes on a much more distant and elusive piece of American history—the story of John Smith and Pocahontas and colonial Virginia circa 1607—and applies his distinctive brand of cinematic style to an imposing array of cultural and historical concerns.
As such, The New World is a kind of extended meditation on a pivotal phase of North American history. The first Anglo settlement on the Atlantic coast, at Jamestown in 1607, is also the occasion for primal and perhaps prophetic encounters between dynamically contrasted societies, cultures and ways of life—the established Native American society including Pocahontas and the Powhatans, and the invading Anglo-Europeans, including the British explorer Capt. Newport and the rebellious Capt. John Smith. And the collision of histories and cultures also plays itself out, quite centrally in the film, through the story of the Indian princess known as Pocahontas—her rescues of Smith and other settlers, her perhaps mythical romance with Smith and her subsequent links to British society.
The princess is never actually called Pocahontas in the film, perhaps in a nod to the uncertainties of the historical record, but the character provides a kind of radiant, mysterious center for Malick’s expansive and richly evocative visions. There is arguably more than one “new world” in the film, and the princess is the astonishingly gifted representative of the one and a precociously intrepid explorer of the other. Q’orianka Kilcher, who was just 14 years old at the time of filming, plays the role with astonishingly unaffected charm and aplomb.
The disputed love story of the princess and the captain (played here by Colin Farrell) has a suitably ambiguous role in all this, as does her subsequent marriage to a British colonist named John Rolfe (Christian Bale). But The New World consistently undercuts the facile social mythology of the Pocahontas found in children’s books and Disney films. And if Malick is generating another kind of myth for her now, it at least has the merit of a multi-faceted awareness to it, something a little more honest and less given to callow illusion.
Much of this, no doubt, remains open to further speculation and dispute, but in ways that seem mostly to Malick’s credit. Indeed, the filmmaker’s complex mise en scene—fragmented montage, heroically evocative landscapes, multiple voice-over monologues, elaborate musical continuities, contrasting settings and locations—exert a sustained power and fascination that is very nearly an end in itself.