Sometimes it occurs to me that many idioms are quite evocative when you consider their literal meaning, however dulled by usage they’ve become. How many times have you heard the New/Old World dichotomy being used to describe the Americas vs Europe? And how many times have you really felt the sentiment underpinning that phrase?
In Terrence Malick’s 2005 film, the title accrues resonances beyond being merely a stock phrase to describe America. We watch a ship glide towards land to the grandiose strains of Wagner’s Das Rheingold– we see the joy that alights on a chained man belowdecks as he glimpses the terrain through a porthole. All of this utterly evokes the dreamlike novelty that will lead the colonists to speak of this World as a place laden with promise. And yet, for all that the watcher is momentarily caught up in that rich sense of potential- this film is no sentimental paean to Manifest Destiny. You are not left to forget the immense subjectivity of the term “new” here, as the natives observe the approaching intruders.
The story itself is built from familiar material. Even for a non-American like myself, the Pocahontas legend (as opposed to the historical reality) floats around in the pop-cultural lexicon. The plot of The New World is based on this mythic version- apparently, it’s unlikely that there was ever any significant relationship between the real John Smith and Pocahontas. Anyways, the classic tale plays out: after making land, the English colonists set about their task of establishing a settlement, to be named Jamestown. The prisoner we saw in the opening montage is revealed to be John Smith, who was sanctioned for threatening mutiny on the voyage over. He is soon pardoned by Captain Newport, who seems to take a mentorly interest in the younger man. Interactions with the natives are tense, and the settlement threatens to be a failure. While the captain returns to England for supplies, Smith is assigned to lead a trading party inland. They are ambushed by the natives, and Smith is taken hostage. We see Smith’s execution being foiled by the protest of the Chief’s daughter, his subsequent life as a hostage of the natives, and burgeoning romance with his saviour (who is never actually referred to as Pocahontas in the film.)
This familiarity provides a good demonstration of the fact that the quality of a work of art has very little to do with the basic plot it conveys. I’m reminded of how many of Shakespeare’s plays eclipsed their older source material. It’s the execution of this story that matters. Regardless of the historical accuracy (or not) of the events portrayed, it uses its untruth to convey something of depth.
And this is no Disneyfied dream: it always feels grounded in the context of its setting. The New World achieves the feeling of plausibility, which is often more important in a work than factual nitpicking.
Terrence Malick’s best films all have a strong focus on both the subjectivity of human experience, and a positioning of that experience within the natural world. This is no exception. I think of The New World as being split into 2 parts, with the 1st being filtered through the perspective of John Smith. Along with his fellow colonists, he marvels at this new landscape, and the vivid novelty that he feels is conveyed through lush shots of greenery and sunlight on water, impossible to take for granted.
The natives, or “naturals” as the colonists refer to them, are seen at first mostly through the eyes of Smith, and as such, there is a gloss of the “exotic” about the peaceful shots of village life. Yet they are also granted hints of their own inner worlds and motivations- largely through the expressive acting of Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas. She and Smith bond as he teaches her English, and she seems as fascinated by his strange ways as he is with hers. Even in the brief moments we are given of her father, Chief Powhatan, he strikes the watcher as a very human figure not at all the “savage” stereotype to be seen in many an old Western.
Eventually Smith is granted permission to return to Jamestown, with the understanding that the English will leave after the winter. As he steps through its gates, you hardly need to see his face to know his reaction. You can practically smell the grime of the place. The cinematography provides a visceral contrast to the dream-like montages of his life among the natives, and the hazy sensuality of his moments with Pocahontas. He falls back into the duties of his life here, being appointed governor, but the colony continues to degrade under the pressures of winter. They survive with help from Pocahontas, who brings them supplies behind her father’s back. She is troubled by Smith’s muted reaction to her. His voiceover questions, “What should I tell her…that was a dream, and now I am awake?”
Pocahontas is exiled when her father learns of her actions towards the English and orders an attack on Jamestown. But the colonists successfully defend themselves, and take her hostage. She is reunited with Smith, and their dream briefly resumes. Yet when Captain Newport finally returns from England, he offers Smith a new mission- the chance to lead an expedition to find a route to the East Indies.
Smith chooses this waking life. “Wait two months”, he tells another settler, “and tell her I am drowned.”
And with that the second part of The New World begins, bursting with the inner world of Pocahontas, or Rebecca, as she is baptised. All is subsumed in the slow haze of the grief that she floats through, as she has lost her people, her culture, and now the man she loves. Her English maid mouths platitudes, and we see “Rebecca” take quiet, corseted steps through the fields she had danced through, in her previous life.
Q’orianka Kilcher’s performance is excellent. Even aside from the voiceovers, she conveys wells of feeling through just her expressions and gestures (she would’ve made a great silent film actress, in another life). (As a side note, the voiceovers in this film, while a classic Malick technique, feel almost superfluous compared to the sensual feast of the visual, music and acting. They’re well written, and often lend a dimension of interiority to the scene, but the film really could stand alone without them.)
With time, we see her growth out of grief, as she reconnects to the world outside the colony’s walls. The colonists establish a farm, and she puts her knowledge of the native crops to good use there. She looks to the sky, the sun, for comfort (throughout the film, you see her emotional states reflected in her connection to the natural world. This is not done in some hokey Noble Savage way- it comes off as totally apt.) And then, there is her gradual connection with John Rolfe. He had lost his wife and child previously, and feels empathy towards her loss as a result. It’s clear that he quickly falls for her, and wishes her to reciprocate those feelings as more than mere duty. She is reluctant, wondering, “Why can I not feel as I must?” This is no 1st love.
Yet, the little moments of contentment and affection between her and Rolfe, later joined by their child, are rich. This is the reality of living on after a loss: it happens almost despite yourself. And so a great retelling of an American myth becomes an illustration of human resilience and growth.
Years pass, as shown by the aging of their child. The couple are invited to England for a royal audience. Before they depart, Rebecca hears gossip about John Smith, revealing he is in fact alive and in London. Her happiness is rattled. You get the sense that a large part of her travel to England is dominated by the possibility of encountering him there. In her preoccupation, she rejects Rolfe’s affection: “It would mean something I did not feel”.
And yet, her wonder at her first sight of England is a distraction. In a beautiful reversal, the wharves and gardens of London are displayed as just as overwhelming and fantastical as those first glances of American soil were. There is wonder and fascination in her gaze at those strange English passers-by, but also hints of her sense of alienation, as she exchanges looks with an animal in a cage that has been brought to the Royal Court as an example of exotic American fauna. After two hours spent luxuriating in the shots of untamed landscape, these polished, manicured English settings seem more foreign than the American wild.
After her royal meeting, she is finally reunited with Smith. Their conversation is brief. He does most of the talking, and acknowledges his regret (we earlier learned that his expedition was unsuccessful). The real drama here is internal, as Rebecca departs and returns to Rolfe, with a newfound joy. You’re left with the sense that she is finally able to fully affirm her new life as a choice, and not merely as a fate to be begrudgingly accepted.
To me, it’s this development that emphasises the multiplicity of the title. Doesn’t it just as well refer to the inner worlds of its central characters, and the shifts they undergo? From America, to England. A freed prisoner’s new lease on life. From the Native village, to Jamestown seen through newly disillusioned eyes. From an adolescent’s first love, to her embrace of a mature relationship and new happiness.
At the film’s close, the family plays in the grounds of the stately home they’ve been staying in. Mother and child run and dance through the garden. Rolfe’s voice-over frames this in retrospect, as he explains Rebecca’s illness and death shortly after, and his subsequent return to America with his son. This must be one of their last days together, but music and motion outweigh all time. We take in one final, lush succession of images from the American wilderness. Sunlight behind a forest canopy, before a single leaf drops. Into what world will it fall?
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