When The New World arrived in 2005, it was met by two types of reviews. Many critics understood it as an epic work of poetic genius, offering glowing praises for the revolutionary storytelling and arresting eye of the film’s writer/director, Terrence Malick. However, more than a few critics and most moviegoers found the film wanting. Bruce Newman, critic for the San Jose Mercury News, gives a good summary of the objection: “The movie’s gorgeous pictorialism draws us toward the shore, but Malick often leaves us marooned in the shoals, waiting for a story to arrive.”
It is an understandable objection. Malick, even in his most linear moments, can be frustratingly opaque. The crucial mistake, though, is to wait “for a story to arrive.” This isn’t because there is no story. The story is really quite simple; we’ve most all heard it in elementary history class. No, it is because Malick doesn’t condescend to his audience. He doesn’t tell us what to think. He shows us people, and people are challenging, frustrating and complicated. He respects us enough to allow us to work for the things his films tell us, and hopes that we will be patient enough to allow him the time and space to do so.
Perhaps contrary to expectations (and therefore disappointing), the central element is not the relationship between settlers and natives, or the rocky history that would follow. As Roger Ebert notes in his review of the film, the story is not told through 21st century eyes. “The events of the film…seem to be happening for the first time. No one here has read a history book from the future.”
Malick tells us this story largely through the eyes of the young protagonist, Pocahontas, and finds the story’s tension in the exploration of her relationships with the two leading men who share the same first name, but little else, John Smith and John Rolfe.
Then newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher is simply astounding. The emotional range required for the part of Pocahontas would be challenging for any actress, let alone someone who was 14 at the time. Kilcher plays her role subtly, with the deft touch of someone twice her age, and with the possible exception of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, there is no debut it’s equal.
Like Tinidril in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, Pocahontas is a re-imagining of Eve. And like both of those characters, she is naive and innocent, with no knowledge of pain or suffering, and an unawakened ability to do great harm. Smith describes the entire native population in such pre-fall-like innocence, “They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession.” In our first glimpses of Pocahontas herself, she is dancing joyfully through her own Eden with no fear.
The first turning point of the film occurs when, in one such moment of revelry, she stumbles across John Smith. The two share a significant look, and the change on Pocahontas’ face is evident. She has seen something which, although she knows not how, has reordered her priorities and loves. It is as if she knows this man is dangerous, but her curiosity will not allow her to forget him.
Smith is unintentionally dangerous. There are certainly many elements of character that find their comparison to Satan in Paradise Lost. When we first see him, he is bound in chains, peering out at the new world from the hold of a ship because he has incited mutiny against the captain of the expedition. In a sense, he stays in the hold throughout the entire film, although the chains become metaphorical. He is a man in constant search of new worlds, new knowledge, new experience. But he is always chained to himself. He has no sense of place, no sense of belonging, and no real sense of honor. The results of his relationship with Pocahontas are not surprising.
The love that the two characters experience is passionate, but short lived, and it never feels quite right as we watch. Eventually, Smith decides to leave Jamestown and take an opportunity given by King James to go out on a new voyage of discovery.
This loss seems to rip Pocahontas in two. She wanders, hopelessly and aimlessly, through the world. Like Smith, she has lost her sense of belonging and place. Gone is the innocence and naivety. She is experiencing the full power of loss, grief, suffering, and pain. And it is at this point that Rolfe finds her. “When first I saw her,” he says, “she was regarded as someone finished, broken, lost. She seemed barely to notice the others about her.” His next action was to seek her out.
It is in this way that Rolfe begins to show himself the opposite of Smith. He is not attracted to her initially because she is an new experience to be had or representative of an unknown land to be tka explored. His is a genuine love and Smith is his foil. I will let the viewer experience the result of Rolfe’s love for Pocahontas on their own. But, an admitted tendency to overstate Christ-figures on the part of this reviewer aside, I will say that to miss this in the character of Rolfe is to miss the point of the film.
The more technical elements of the film are pitch-perfect. The atmosphere, provided by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s images, mirrors the events of the story perfectly. The beauty of the film was praised by almost every critic and viewer alike, and rightly so. Lubezki certainly deserved the Oscar nomination for it. He famously made no use of any artificial lighting (save at Hampton Palace in England) and most every frame is in deep-focus. Combined with the lack of crane or dolly shots, these elements present a crisp, clean, and passionately beautiful stage on which the actors work. Composer James Horner’s score, in combination with classical pieces selected by Malick himself, never threatens to overpower the work of the actors or pictures, but rather provides the perfect emotional support for each scene.
All the three elements, acting, cinematography, and music, are on full display in the opening scene. Amid extraordinary views of nature, natives and colonists view each other from ship and shore, while Wagner’s “Vorspiel” from Das Rheingold swells to a joyous crescendo. We feel as both colonists and “naturals” must have, on the cusp of a world full of possibility.
Along with the central story there are, as with all Malick’s films, other themes that would be profitable to explore. The most interesting, I think, is to view this story as America’s Aeneid; it is our founding myth. The films begins, as all epics do with the invocation of the muse: “Come spirit. Help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother; We your field of corn. We rise out of the soul of you.” Viewed in this way, what do the events of the film tell us, as Americans, about who we are? Malick gives an interesting answer: We are no different from everyone else. There is nothing exceptional in our beginning. It was a beginning like every human beginning in this world, a repeat of the fall. But like that story and this, the possibility of redemption is there, waiting merely for us to accept it.
Most importantly, though, and like all good stories, The New World allows us the opportunity to come to a greater understanding of what it means to be human. It tells the universal story of who we are and what we have been given the chance to become through the particular story of Pocahontas, Rolfe, and Smith. It leads us from our naive and innocent beginnings, through pain, suffering, grief, loss and terror, to the transformation that an undeserved, sacrificial love can bring.