Sunday, 20 September 2020
The New World
Written by Sandra Fitzpatrick   
Saturday, 21 January 2006 20:06

Everyone knows the story of Pocahontas, whether you are a history buff or a Disney aficionado. Most treatments of the story are either overly tragic, or overly cheerful. Terrence Malick’s The New World is neither of these. Instead, it paints a solemn and beautiful picture of a pivotal moment in history - the meeting of Native Americans with white men from across the sea.

The opening scene shows a riverbed. Water trickles over the rocks giving an immediate feeling of peacefulness. All we hear are the sounds of birds, water, wind in the trees. As the river widens the camera pans up and what we see is jarring - huge ships with sales are approaching. The strangeness of seeing those foreign objects in the natural landscape is a small fraction of what the natives must have felt in 1607 when they first saw ships.

Aboard one of the ships is Captain John Smith (Colin Ferrell), who is sentenced to be executed once they hit land because of his mutinous grumblings. Fortunately for Smith he is the only military man on board, and is pardoned. As the settlers construct the beginnings of Jamestown, they have to keep peace with the natives whom they call “the Naturals”. The English’s ignorance has left them sick and starving in a foreign land and they need help to stay alive.

With the situation getting desperate they send Smith to meet with the “King” of the Naturals and set up trade of trinkets and baubles for food and furs. But they have begun to feel the threat of these strange pale men and they nearly kill Smith when he arrives. It is only through a plea from the chief’s beloved daughter that Smith’s life is spared. In the days that follow, he and Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) form an innocent bond of trust that deepens into love as they learn each other’s languages. Her father cautions her to put her people before her heart, foreshadowing what is to come.

What this film does best is capture the feelings of complete foreignness on behalf of both the English and the Naturals. It relates to the audience emotions of curiosity and caution as the two cultures meet. Unlike in other historical epics, the characters don’t seem to know what will happen because they read about it in history class.
Unfortunately, what sets this film apart is also what will alienate it for many people. SLOW PACE. Long shots of cornfields, trees and grass make it more art than adventure. This will be a movie that some people will love and appreciate. Others will probably want to walk out of the theatre. Lucky for me I was on the love side, but there is no question that a 15-minute trim would have been beneficial.

The New World stars a superb cast who give depth and meaning to long scenes where very little is said. Colin Ferrell is particularly good because his intentions are as mysterious to us as they are to Pocahontas. With her he discovers that he can be a good man, but has trouble allowing himself to be. Newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher is an ideal choice for Pocahontas. With her strong, graceful build and noble features it is hard to believe that the actress is only 14 years! Then there is Christian Bale who comes into the film only in the last quarter as John Rolfe. It is easy to resent him after such an involving love story with Smith, but his kindness helps to mend what is damaged.

The New World goes beyond being a simple romance into the realm of poetic artistry. The only thing I would change is the length. I give it 8 out of 10 stars.