I have found the time for some more Terence Malick, though, and it turns out The Thin Red Line wasn’t a fluke: The New World is even better, to the point where it may one day occupy that rather dubious category of favourite film (sorry, Inland Empire). It’s a very strange, staggeringly beautiful thing, at the very least.
It also helped me articulate a little bit more why I think Malick took a long time to click. I first watched To The Wonder and The Tree of Life, both of which attempt to cram a whole cosmos of meaning into a very small space, which makes them feel very hermetically sealed unto themselves (aside from To The Wonder honestly being a bit weak, cinematography aside). The Thin Red Line and The New World are grandiose historical epics that provide a suitably big canvas for Malick’s pretensions to play out. Which I wonder is why the latter is so divisive: there’s a bigger expectation that a Pocahontas movie wouldn’t be so willfully experimental. The promotional materials and trailers all promise a Titanic-style swooning romance, but instead you get the Haibane Renmei of historical dramas.
But anyway: this is indeed a movie about the historically dubious romance between Powatan princess Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) and Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) during the Virginia Company’s founding of Jamestown, her eventual marriage to John Rolfe (Christian Bale), and finally her journey to England, where she falls ill and dies.
The story of Pocahontas and the clash of cultures surrounding her is easily the sort of material that could become a naked grab for prestige and Oscar nominations under the guise of making a profound statement about racism of colonialism. The New World isn’t that movie, and indeed stubbornly refuses to fit into any easy, after-the-fact narrative we might want to force on the characters. It uses its painstakingly detailed recreation of 17th century Virginia as the backdrop for what is the most nuanced examination of romantic love that I’ve seen in a big-budget movie.
This is melded with an approach to narrative that is more interested in describing emotional arcs than in a literal depiction of events. Key incidents which would be major scenes in a more conventional period piece (such as, for instance, the first meeting of the English with the natives, or Pocahontas’ death) are often glossed over with a terse bit of narration in favor of often languid, dreamlike scenes that immerse us in the inner lives of the characters. Watching it made me realize, in a much more intuitive way, something I had been groping towards: the old storytelling adage of “show, don’t tell” is flawed. It’s rather more important to show what is important for the audience to experience – what the core of the story is – and summarize what is merely important to know. Or perhaps don’t even summarize it, if the details are incidental and the audience can still follow the thread. The New World takes this to an elliptical extreme that wouldn’t work for every story, but I’ve already found it to be a helpful example in terms of how I think about my own storytelling.
At any rate, the early section of the film is centered around Smith, and the utopian rhapsodies that America and his encounter with Native American culture and most importantly Pocahontas throw him into. At times it threatens to go full-on Rousseau; pitting the noble savage against corrupt civilization with the squalor of Jamestown contrasted against the innocent bliss of the locals. But this is the movie’s game: to allow the audience to experience Smith’s dream, only to have it prove evanescent and evaporate around us. The idyllic romance between Smith and Pocahontas is passionate, but the situation deteriorates, and Smith’s own ambitions lead him to abandon her.
So Smith gradually fades from the narrative as Pocahontas finds herself sold to the English as a hostage when things start to get violent. Rolfe, a pious widower, finds her in a state of desolation, and courts and ultimately marries her. What follows is very curious: a very low key portrait of domesticity. Pocahontas has a lot of affection and goodwill towards Rolfe, but doesn’t feel the same sort of passion for him that she had with Smith.
This is never played for tragedy: their marriage is revealed to over time blossom into a deep love. When Pocahontas encounters Smith again at the end of the movie, she understands that the love they had could never be sustainable, and that Rolfe is the man of her life. Meanwhile, while the movie is subtly critical of the English’s treatment of her as an exotic novelty, her own gradual habituation to their culture seems to mirror the discovery that Smith had in the first third of the movie. Thus the title turns out to have a double meaning, referring to both America and England (and, paradoxically it is the latter that the audience most keenly feels when, after all that time in the Virginian countryside, the action is suddenly shifted to England).
The New World is a sort of Paradise Not Regained, where people are offered visions of transcendence that they attempt to grasp at in various fashions – chiefly romantic love and political utopianism – only to find that it cannot be contained in any finite thing. The thrust of the Virginia Company’s arc isn’t that they spoiled the new eden of America, but rather that they were foolish for thinking that they could find it there. And Pocahontas’ own arc isn’t one of a free spirit eventually stifled by an alien culture, but instead a melancholy reflection on the transience and flux of life. Smith chases his dreams in the direction of Pocahontas and eventually past her. The closest we get to seeing that transcendence is revealed to be the family that Pocahontas and Rolfe start, though that is also marred by her death.
The movie says more than it means to: the vague, unfulfilled longings it describes are really a longing for God. Like the poems of John Keats and Rainer Maria Rilke the movie is a secular work with religious feelings. And so, like those works, it too fails to capture transcendence through its own aesthetic sublimity. But it’s a noble failure and is the better for having those feelings. I don’t think I’ve seen another movie that so captures this, and that alone may be enough to make it a favourite.
It is aesthetically sublime, though, abetted by the decision to shoot almost entirely with natural light. Barry Lyndon did something similar three decades earlier, but that movie deliberately attempted to capture the ceremonial artifice of 18th century Europe through obsessively composed shots modeled after the paintings of the time. The New World goes the opposite direction with a tactile, subjective, approach which just wants you to sink into all the imagery.
There’s little about The New World that grabs me by the throat; it lacks in set-pieces or even any immediately breathtaking, standout moments. But as it gradually sinks in, the cumulative power is immense….like Pocahontas and Rolfe’s relationship (oooohhh)
This is also one of those movies which confusingly exists in multiple, non-definitive cuts. I’ve seen both the theatrical and “extended” cuts, and I’m not sure which I’d say is the better of the two. It’s already a rather deliberately paced movie in the former, and the latter pushes that to more operatic lengths.
I suppose with this post I’ve gone the furthest from my unofficial rule of only talking about sci-fi/fantasy and animated movies, but I’m also discovering that I have a bit of a soft spot for sumptuous period pieces.