In 2005, Terrence Malick returned to cinema to give us his most poetic film yet, The New World. After he abandoned production on a film about Che Guevara, Malick decided to finally film a script he wrote in the late seventies. This romanticized version of the founding of Jamestown in 1607, focusses primarily on the love affair between Cpt. John Smith, played by Colin Ferrel and Pocahontas, played by 14 year-old Q’orianka Kilcher. The New World is also his most challenging, and least respected film–something which one day I am sure will change.
The love story is between the much older John Smith and the not-yet-a-woman Pocahontas. Unlike Badlands, which featured a disturbing love story, the relationship featured here while possibly misguided, is far more innocent. The first half of the film is for the most part filmed from Smith’s perspective; we hear his ideas for the new world, and his thoughts on his new found love.
Verging on Lawrence of Arabia territory, Smith begins to feel at home with the natives. At times, even becoming like a saviour to them, while knowing he is bringing death in the long run. He wants to stay with the natives, leave his responsibilities, to live a good life with the person he loves. However, he knows that even if he were to stay, the English are not leaving and they will destroy the natives.
Once Smith returns to Jamestown, the film drastically shifts gears in terms of tone. The centre of the film is some of the darkest material Malick has ever dealt with, evoking similarities to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre. but instead of Smith going insane, all those around him are. As famine sets in, we see the true animalistic nature of man, as anger, cannibalism and madness become prevalent in the new community. The film features the natural beauty of the landscape, juxtaposed by the insanity of man.
It is by far Malick’s most stylistically extreme film, making it his least accessible. The narration in this film is used quite differently than in other films, as it is often layered over dialogue. It is as if to show the characters are preoccupied by their thoughts, and do not care about what is happening around them. Certainly the case with Smith as he is the least certain of what he is to do, how is he to deal with this confusing love and his responsibilities to England.
Shot by the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the film is never filmed to look grand or epic, but merely captures the natural beauty of the place. It is some of the most impressive work by both of these extremely talented filmmakers.
The feeling of the film shifts once more as Smith returns to England and advises a friend to tell Pocahontas that he has died. Her grief devastates her, leaving her unable to function. John Rolfe, played by Christian Bale, is a new-comer to Jamestown and a successful tobacco grower. He spots her covered in dirt, and falls in love with her. She knows she loves someone else but accepts his advances, eventually marrying him.
The film ends in England, as Pocahontas is welcomed by the King and Queen. We know what will happen next, and what will happen to the natives. Malick’s films always work on a large scope, yet are immensely personal. Pocahontas’ story is one of tragedy and sadness, but beauty fills the screen, and the love between these people appears real.
The film was received with much hesitation from the film community, which considered it his weakest effort yet. It is certainly his most difficult, and this is part of the reason why I see it growing in favour in years to come. The New World is a true cinematic accomplishment that may one day be seen as a masterpiece.