The New World (2005)
The New World
This is the story of Pocahontas and John Smith but this is not Disneyland. It is a harsh and powerfully realistic demythifying – yet beautiful retelling of the Pocahontas story.
The film follows Pocahontas’s life as she chooses the settlers over her people. It follows her marriage and family – not to John Smith; and journey to England and a royal audience with the King at Hampton Court. Then finally, her mysterious death soon after her final meeting with Smith; the man she truly loves.
This latest film uses and develops many of the techniques Malick has used in previous films. The most impressive of these is his cinematography. Beautiful sweeping landscapes are caught at twilight. Malick, I think like Bergman has a real feel for the quality of light. The land is presented as green and lush; there is a freshness and clarity in the settings. He pays special attention to the natural world and focuses on the little details of a rich and unspoilt America just as the Europeans begin to settle the land.
And then the familiar narrator – this time the voice of John Smith – like Private Wit in The Thin Red Line, Malick has adopted an adult male voice, reflecting on what he sees describing thoughts, actions and plans. We see the film from Smiths’ perspective. Yet because he is absent from at least half the film the voice over is far weaker. It is also more prosaic, thinner and flatter than his other films –especially Badlands and Days of Heaven - even the hardened voice of Linda in Days of Heaven conveys poetry in its gritty and earthy strongly accented monologues.
Surprising is the treatment of the Europeans in the film. Their life is presented realistically and sympathetically as they struggle to survive and establish themselves in the New World. The native American’s treat them suspiciously. At first befriending them but later attacking them once they realise they are plan to stay.
Yes there are the usual symbols of colonial rule. She, the native American representing the spirit of the land which is ancient, fragile, beautiful, full of life and fertility, the other. As Donne puts it, “Oh my America/My new found land.” And Captain Smith the male, European settler, seduced by the land and her beauty and vitality. But these traditional images are perhaps undermined by Pocahontas’s dominance of the film and Smith’s fading away.
I think the film lacks a strong and dynamic conflict. The tension between white men and native American’s smoulders and never really sustains our engagement. The relationship between the lovers is dramatic but soon turns to loss, melancholy and longing that takes up much of the film. Malick just manages to hold our attention in this 150 minute epic.