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The New World

March 20, 2016

The New World (2005)
Director: Terrence Malick
Actors: Q’orianka Kilcher, Colin Farrell, Christian Bale

Synopsis: The English begin to colonise Virginia but have chequered relations with the Native American tribes of the region. Renegade English soldier, John Smith (Colin Farrell), starts a tentative ‘affair’ with a daughter of the tribe’s chief.  She (Q’orianka Kilcher) is abandoned by both Smith and her tribe, and is forced into a marriage with tobacco farmer John Rolfe (Christian Bale). They move to England but she dies soon after.

Review: Closer to a symphonic poem than any conventional form of dramaturgical motion picture, Terence Malick’s The New World is a triumphant work of unmitigated sensuality: the profundity of the colonisation of the American continent told entirely through feeling and the use of the Pocahontas legend as the most heartbreaking of metaphors for Scott Fitzgerald’s notion of man “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

In many respects, The New World is a very close companion piece to Malick’s previous work The Thin Red Line. It wouldn’t seem an immediately obvious point of comparison as The Thin Red Line depicts a specific juncture in the US military campaign in the Pacific during the Second World War whereas The New World is set over 300 years earlier in the formative days of the English settlements in Virginia. However both films are about paradises found and lost; symbolised in their strikingly similar opening images of purity – Witt swimming joyously with the Guadalcanal natives in the azure Pacific Ocean, while Pocahontas is doing the same with her tribespeople in the Potomac/Atlantic – in both cases, this is just before the ‘fall’ and the arrival of the Old/First World intruders with their colonial, mercantile stakes.

Conjuring this sense of an unimpeachable, grandiose perfection, Malick scores his early visions of the New World to Wagner’s epic and simply beautiful “Vorspiel” from Das Rheingold. It’s one of the greatest pieces of musical appropriation for a visual and ideological sentiment I can recall in film – the soaring trumpets and strings speaking for the rapturous way that the colonialists (especially Smith) receive their new bounty, but it has a vitally important echo at the story’s end as Pocahontas finally makes peace with her fractured soul and recaptures her transcendent investment in nature and existence just before her death. If that wasn’t enough, Malick ingeniously uses Mozart’s delicate Piano Concerto No. 23 as emblem for Smith’s gentle integration with the “Naturals” and Pocahontas, and commissioned composer James Horner does a fine job of somehow manufacturing a score that keeps up with and compliments the immensity of the Wagner and Mozart numbers.

The New World also saw Malick employ the more romantic, myriad use of voiceover utilised in The Thin Red Line, moving further away from the detached, wry and disciplined use of the technique he essayed in Badlands and Days of Heaven. As in The Thin Red Line, its effect is a little scattergun. For every instance of pure inspiration (the magical moment where Smith muses on his metamorphosis in the “start over” monologue accompanied by “Vorspiel”) there are moments of clumsy exposition (Smith calling Pocahontas “my America” – we get the metaphor!) Still, Malick’s wilfully bounteous use of voiceover feels more permissible in The New World. It’s an unmitigated feast of the senses and is more interested in conjuring a sentiment than in The Thin Red Line‘s slightly tighter alliance to story, characterisation and moral.

The New World also saw one of the great pieces of female film acting, and much like with the fantastic work of the little-remembered Brooke Adams in Malick’s Days of Heaven, so The New World will always be defined by the special, intuitive, heartbreaking performance of Q’orianka Kilcher in the central role of “Pocahontas”. As the crucible for Malick’s poetic thesis on the rapture/trauma dichotomy of the colonisation of the American continent, so much import is laid on the character of Pocahontas to represent that journey and Kilcher achieves it expertly. In a Malick film, the actors cannot hide behind playing their parts, they have to feel every emotion, and Kilcher particularly hits her stride in the second half of the film – after Pocahontaas has been abandoned both by her tribe and Smith, and she has to shakily rebuild her life under the stealthy watch of John Rolfe. The sequence where we watch her melancholic, compromised submission to the marriage request of Rolfe is spellbinding acting, encapsulated in the heartbreaking line, “I suppose I must be happy.”

Colin Farrell also triumphs in the equally difficult role of John Smith – the moral pivot for the Old World’s guilt or conscience at their plundering of the New. Farrell triumphs in a mesmeric scene (the best in the entire film) where Smith comprehends the tragedy of his men’s colonial legacy through the Natives now starting to engage in aggressive, mercantile activities with him. Farrell’s subtly tearful gaze, refracted through a flashback to his idyll with Pocahontas, and once more accompanied by Wagner, is an ingenious barrage on the senses to imprint a complex historical (but also personal) sentiment of regret. Equally spellbinding (and bringing the film’s metaphoric politicking on America/Pocahontas full circle) is when Smith finally reunites with Pocahontas in England. She is now married to Rolfe and being paraded around England as the ultimate ‘jewel’ of England’s New World discoveries. Smith’s reflections on their short, transient window of paradise, “what we knew in the forest, I thought it was a dream – it’s the only truth” is such a powerful and sincere sentiment (beautifully delivered by Farrell) and seems to be the film’s closing moment of catharsis – giving Pocahontas some form of closure on her fractured state, and allowing her a measure of peace and acceptance prior to the poignant late revelation of her untimely death. (March 2016)

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