by Mark Goldstein
The Jamestown Mythos
Growing up in Virginia, some of the earliest history lessons I remember from my childhood were about Jamestown. I went on multiple class field trips to Jamestown over the course of my schooling. Yet I still find it to be a topic of endless fascination. Myth has shrouded the narrative from the very beginning. The most enduring myth of all of course has been that of the friendship between Pocahantas and John Smith. This is often portrayed as a romance (despite the fact that the real Pocahantas was a young child). Mythology though it may be (as Paige will get into), it has from time-to-time made for some strong cinema. The New World; director Terrence Malick’s epic 2005 drama about John Smith and Pocahontas; is a fantastic entry into the genre.
Filmed on Location on the James River
The movie was filmed largely on location in Virginia; with the immensely talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski (Gravity, The Remnant) eschewing professional lighting for natural back-lights. Lubezki captured absolutely stunning ground-level shots which helped to build up dramatic tension and gave the film strong emotional depth. The battle scenes were visually immersive and grueling to watch. The use of indigenous actors is commendable. UNC-Charlotte Professor Clair Rudes reconstructed the Powhattan language with great care.
Strong Performances from Cast Led to Compelling Cinema
The film showcased some incredibly strong performances. Most notably Q’orianka Kilcher, a German actress with Native American roots, who starred as Pocahantas in her big screen debut. Kilcher brought her role to life. She infused the character with a youthful curiosity and energy in her interactions with Smith (Colin Farrell). One of the saddest moments of the film comes after John Smith has left for England, and Pocahantas marries tobacco farmer John Rolfe (Christian Bale). The couple are invited to England to shmooze among English high-society, but Kilcher is able to convey the face of a young girl from away from home.
Farrell’s performance as John Smith was equally compelling. He manages to show a wide range of emotions: from the anger and ruthlessness with which he governs the Jamestown colony (“if you don’t work, you don’t eat!”), contrasted with his gentleness as he interacts with Pocahontas. Some of the strongest moments of the film came from innocuous scenes such as Farrell teaching Kilcher words in English. The relationship between the two co-stars, which was abruptly broken up when Smith was called back to England while Pocahontas is led to believe he was killed, was one of the strongest performances of the film.
My one criticism about The New World is that at times I felt as if the film could not decide whether it wanted to be a historical epic or a romantic drama. Malick made explicit efforts for historical accuracy in many of the aesthetic and linguistic aspects of film as discussed above. But considerable screen-time is also dedicated to a well-known myth, that other films (such as Disney’s Pocahantas) have been criticized for portraying. Malick competently interweaves the real and the fiction, but this at times feels contrived and makes the film’s 3-hour run-time feel a mite excessive . However, The New World is easily one of the most well-done epics about Colonial America.