The New World tells the story of the settlement of the Jamestown Colony in 1607, particularly the exploits of Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), his capture by Powhatan (August Schellenberg), and his fateful encounter with Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher). From there, it diverges from history in favor of the famous of the legend of Pocahontas. Smith and Pocahontas fall in love. Smith is called back to England. Pocahontas is informed that Smith as killed, grieves and ultimately marries the widower John Rolfe (Christian Bale).
Terrence Malick deliberately chose the legendary version of Pocahontas’ life story rather than the historical one, and with good reason. The Legend of Pocahontas is an important part of the American psyche. In John Smith’s love for Pocahontas, Americans see their own love of country reflected and hear an echo of the biblical imperative to leave one’s parents and cleave to one’s wife. In Pocahontas’ reciprocation of John Smith’s love, Americans see a dream of what their history could have been – a union of different people coming together because of what they discovered they had in common. It is not just about whitewashing our past or appropriating a princess. The legend provides us with a lesson for how we should try to live going forward.
For the entire running time of The New World, I sensed the movie that it could have been. The Legend of Pocahontas is the first truly American romance. If the love affairs depicted on screen had felt alive or visceral in some way; if the emotions at its center had exploded or burned a little hotter, The New World might have been a truly remarkable film. In Days of Heaven, Malick staged a love triangle where every word and action seemed to be tinged with danger. Unfortunately, The New World never seems to have a beating heart.
The New World is kneecapped by its cast. Neither Colin Farrell nor Christian Bale has ever impressed as a romantic leading man. They seemed oddly motionless in this film – nearly comatose. At one point, Pocahontas actually compared Bale’s Rolfe to a tree, which I thought was surprisingly apt. They are, in a word, boring.
Thankfully, the failures of Mr. Farrell and Mr. Bale do not extend to Ms. Kilcher. She shines as Pocahontas, delivering a performance that ranges from girlish whimsy to motherly wisdom, as the role requires. Ms. Kilcher is required to perform in English, a Native American language, and pantomime, and makes herself understood in each. She is, in a word, charming. It is a great relief that The New World focuses so completely on her story.
For all its uneven qualities, The New World is perhaps the most beautiful film that I have reviewed for this project. I was struck, as I was when we reviewed Days of Heaven, with how extraordinary and singular Malick’s images are.
But man does not live on beautiful imagery alone, and The New World moves far too slowly to work as a historical drama or compelling romance. It is only an average film.
The New World is also only the second best film based on the life of Pocahontas to feature Christian Bale. If you would like to see the best film based on the life of Pocahontas featuring Christian Bale go watch the 1995 Disney animated Pocahontas (Christian Bale voices Thomas, I will kill you all at Disney trivia).
The New World finds itself on this list because it was selected as one of the best films by five different reviewers. My next film for this project, The Lives of Others, received the same reception.
From Out in the Void,