Directed by Terrence Malick. USA. 2005.
Reviewed by Alan Pavelin and Howard Schumann
This is Malick’s version of the Pocahontas legend, and it couldn’t be more different from the Disney animated cartoon which came out some years ago. As in his (anti-)war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), his primary concern seems to be that the beauties of nature, and the innocence of tribal culture, are totally corrupted by the intrusion of “civilisation”, whether American troops in the earlier film or English colonists here.
Set in the early 17th century, it tells the story of how Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), after arriving in Virginia, falls in love with the local tribal chief’s young daughter (Q’orianka Kilcher, a wonderful performance for a newcomer) who saves his life; and who later, on believing him dead, marries the aristocratic John Rolfe (Christian Bale), accompanies him to England, and meets the King and Queen. To say that the film tells a “story” is perhaps too strong; it is more a series of impressions, with much voiceover and not much dialogue, hung on to a loose narrative, which contains one or two implausibilities such as the girl‘s incredible grasp of English after just a short time. As always with Malick, there are countless stunning shots of the natural world, landscapes, seascapes, and living things, implying that the messy doings of the human beings are unfortunate blots on a pristine canvas.
One reviewer remarked that Malick would have been a great silent movie-maker; true, but his use of sound is remarkable. The chirping of insects, the rustle of wind, are clear as a bell, while the wonderful opening theme from Wagner’s Das Rheingold accompanies the ships approaching the Virginian coast and at two or three other key moments, including the film’s achingly moving ending.
Unless I’m much mistaken, the name “Pocahontas” is not once uttered throughout the film. This was not the girl’s real name anyway, merely a nickname; but perhaps Malick is saying that we should see his film not as the retelling of a well-known historical event but as his way of expressing his belief that tribal cultures should be left as they are. Although the girl, renamed Rebecca, seems suitably impressed by the manicured gardens and magnificent apartments of Hampton Court and its palace, there is nevertheless a sense that it is all totally alien to her.
We may not share Malick’s idealised view of primitive culture, but we should certainly not miss his film.
While actual events may have been somewhat different, Malick takes the story at face value, enhancing it only with voiceovers that allow us to enter the minds of the characters and feel what they are feeling. The film opens with the arrival of three English ships docking on the James River in Virginia in 1607 to the music of Wagner's Das Rheingold. It then describes the early days of the settlers, their near starvation, the clashes with the Indians, and the relationship between Pocahontas and Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), a rebellious English explorer awaiting execution for insubordination. When the Indians capture Smith during an expedition to seek trading partners, he is threatened with death until Pocahontas saves him from execution by cradling his head in her lap and laying her head on his shoulders.
The Captain and Pocahontas become friends but the true nature of their relationship is clouded in myth and allegory. In the film, however, the Captain and his Indian princess express a love so intense that it suggests a state of grace. As Smith is drawn under her spell, he thinks about abandoning his life, to "start over.... exchange this false life for a true one.... give up the name of Smith." But the thought is fleeting. After Pocahontas warns the Captain of an impending raid by her villagers, her father sends her into exile. The settlers take her hostage, however, convert her to Christianity (not shown in the film), and dress her in frumpy English attire, but she is content just being close to the man she loves.
Smith leaves Pocahontas, however, to explore the Canadian North for a trade route to the Indies, instructing a friend to tell her after two months that he died at sea. His betrayal and their doomed love affair serve as a metaphor for the failure of the Natives and the Europeans to live together in harmony. The spark in Pocahontas' life flickers but when a new settler, tobacco farmer John Rolfe (Christian Bale), arrives, he falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. She must now decide whether to follow her head and marry Rolfe or her heart, holding out for the return of Captain Smith. Her resolution of this dilemma takes her to England where the process of discovery takes on a new meaning.
The role of Pocahontas is played by fourteen-year old Q'orianka Kilcher in a powerful and brilliant performance that never strikes a false note. While the director has excised most of the dialogue, little is required to convey the depth of feeling written on her soulful face or on the faces of Smith and Rolfe.
Whoever Pocahontas really was, Malick depicts her as a spiritual force and the film achieves transcendence through her vision. The New World is a meditation on love and loss, innocence and betrayal, and the limitations of a society based on material progress.
It is also a lament for the civilization that might have been: a multi-ethnic society rich in spirituality and closeness to nature, inhabited by people with a sense of community, devoid of fear. For the English explorers, the landing at Jamestown and the colonizing of Virginia was a triumph. For Native Americans, it was the beginning of a tragedy that lasted for centuries and continues to the present day. Though The New World is a masterful film and thoroughly enchanting, our knowledge of what is to come leaves a lingering sadness.
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