Terrence Malick, an auteur in every sense, has both written and directed just five films in his since 1969. As such each new work, staggeringly original in its scope and in its approach, is a cause for eager anticipation. Each finds new truths and new meanings in events that had seemed familiar, combat during World War II in his last effort,THE THIN RED LINE, and now the settling of America by the Europeans in THE NEW WORLD.
The seemingly familiar story is that of the settling of what would become Virginia in 1607 by the English is told from three distinct perspectives, John Smith (Colin Farrell), the adventurer who arrived in America in chains and barely missed being hanged when he got there; Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), the Native American princess whose free-spirit has devastating repercussions for her people, and John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the sensitive settler who rescues Pocahontas’ heart. From schoolbooks to Peggy Lee, the tale of the Native American princess throwing herself on Smith to save him from being executed by her father, King Powhatan has been retold so many times that it has all but lost its impact. Malick finds it again, and uses it to create an extended mediation on what is lost in every sense when cultures clash.
The journey is as much an inner one as a geographic one, with Malick using voice-over narration by his principle three as much as dialogue to expand on what they are feeling as the story unfolds. It’s a subtle, brilliant move, making these metaphoric archetypes for the conquest of America living, breathing, flesh and blood that are all too human. It also demonstrates Malick’s sense of history as that of tiny individual moments coalescing into the larger sweep of events. He lingers over what seems to be minutiae, a sunset, lovers lost in gazing into each others eyes, armor-clad Europeans clanking ridiculously through a swamp, but actually builds up over the course of the film to create a singular world with which the audience establishes a rapturous intimacy.
When the English landed, everything changed for everyone on both sides. Malick places Pocahontas at the nexus of this. In a story where the unpremeditated decision of a moment changes the course of history, it is her impetuous, impulsive act that determines everything. In a similar act of impetuousness, Malick cast in that pivotal role a girl, like the character she plays, barely into her teens. It’s a heavy burden for one so young, but Malick is vindicated. There is an immediate connection in one so young to the devastatingly intense passions, high and low, that sweep away everything in its path. Kilcher, with a face made up of mythic planes that transcend mere beauty, and a spirit like quicksilver, channels the very force of nature itself. There is also to her a natural nobility, even when flirting or when, exiled by her people for following her heart, she becomes a stranger in her own land, bearing with solemn equanimity the grotesque obscenity of imprisoning her body in the corsets and leather shoes of civilization. Bale is excellent with a patient nurturing quality that the camera transmutes into sunshine, while full advantage is taken of Farrell’s wild nature, brooding good looks, and emotions over which he seems to have little control.
Though Pocahontas is the center of the piece, Malick insistently keeps the audience’s point of view squarely with the Europeans, providing subtitles only when the Native Americans are on their own, and none when they interact with the English, save when Smith, having just been saved by Pocahontas, begins to tell the story from his point of view. The implication being that he is inferring meaning from later events. The rituals of each community take on, therefore, similarly strange, even exotic, qualities. From the vantage of the 21st century, it’s an easy feat, the muddy squalor of the fort and early settlement as alien as the rituals of the Native Americans, whether in the verdant forest or in their meeting house where the rays of light hide as much as they show as they pierce the deep shadows. There is no need for a political screed about imperialism and genocide. There is no mistaking the way that the Europeans change their immediate surroundings from the lush greens to grayish-browns, like an infection slowly killing all with which it comes into contact. And the image is more damning than a verabal manifesto. THE NEW WORLD, like other Malick films, creates its own filmic idiom. It is the cinematic equivalent of a tone poem with an emotional impact that works on more than the conscious level.
This is history that is not just seen, but felt, and absorbed into one’s very soul.