This year the director Terrence Malick will release his sixth film - 'The Tree of Life'. His first film Badlands was released in 1973 - 37 years ago. He has made some of the most beautiful films I have ever seen and in anticipation of 'The Tree of Life' I'm going to review all five of his previous films over the next couple of months.
'The New World' - is Malick's most recent film - released in 2006 and is based on the true story of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. It is set in Virginia in 1607 and follows the arrival of the first English settlers to America and the establishment of the first English settlement that eventually became Jamestown.
Perhaps one way of summing up the film "The New World" is to quote a line from 'To His Mistress Going to Bed', by John Donne. Donne writes to his lover as he seduces her, "O my America, my new found land". There is bound up with this erotic line a particularly colonial and masculine sensibility that we may not appreciate in the early 21 st century. But underpinning these sentiments is a wonder and a feeling of awe that forms the core of this breath taking film. Malick seems to make a reference to it when he has John Smith call out with yearning as he thinks about her,'O my America'.
The film follows the relationship between Captain John Smith - who arrives in chains and the wild, enigmatic and beautiful Pocahontas - daughter to a local Chief. The two are mezmerised by each other as they explore their different languages and ways of life. Their growing relationship is in stark contrast to the communities they represent that grow increasingly fearful and suspitious of each other, often breaking out into violence.
Although the film begins with John Smith - the explorer and adventurer - which promises an action film. Instead after Smith's departure, the film follows Pocahontas's oddessy. It follows her grief in her separation from Smith, her exile from her own people and isolation from the new settler community. Eventually she arrives in England with husband and child and an audience with James I. It is in England she meets Smith again and is able to be reconciled with Smith. She seems to finally commit herself fully to her husband. But she dies soon after.
I loved the depiction of 17th century England and the contrast it makes with the America scenes. I loved Malick's evocation of nature that owes so much to the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki - who is also working on The Tree of Life. I thought the presentation of the English settlement facinating. There were echoes of Lord of the Flies - in power conflicts, the desperate day to day fight to survive as the settlers struggle to create a sustainable community. I loved Q'orianka Kilcher who played Pocahontas. I loved the depiction of native American's. Malick researched very carefully the native American tribes in the Jamestown area. This was done so beautifully, sensitvely. They had a vitality and integrity of their own.
At the end of The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald writes about another colony, a Dutch colony, situated further south along the eastern coast that later became New York. In the last paragraphs of the novel he writes of the sailors that first encounted Long Island.
". . . gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder..."
The New World captures that unique moment in history and we watch in wonder and dread as that history unfolds.