It is intimidating when a film asks of an audience to trust it unconditionally. "The New World" is such a film.
A kaleidoscopic epic made on a rich canvas of images, sound and ideas, it is a celebration of the artistic ambitions of writer-director Terrence Mallick who – with just three feature films ("Badlands," "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line") – has earned the rare honour of being called a poet and visionary. "The New World" is set against the dramatic and historic background of an ancient time and it weaves fact and myth without compromising the director's oeuvre: dreamy montages, non-linear editing and enigmatic voiceovers instead of a conventional narrative structure. It is a mood piece of aching beauty, one that demands our undivided attention, our absolute intellectual and emotional participation. This makes "The New World" challenging and different – perhaps like nothing we've seen before.
Ben: Captain Newport, sir, I found oysters. They're as thick as my hands. They're the size of stones sir and there's fish everywhere they're flapping against your legs. We're gonna live like kings.
The year is 1607. Colin Farrell is John Smith, a rebellious soldier sent on a British expedition to establish an economic, cultural and religious foothold on, what will eventually become, America. When Smith is promoted to Captain he is tasked with befriending the Native American empire ruled by the powerful chieftain Powhatan (August Schellenberg). Remember, this is the classic Pocahontas story – captured by the tribesmen, Smith's life is spared on the urging of the chief's "favourite daughter," played with astonishing radiance and sophistication by 15-year-old newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher. (Interestingly her character is never actually called Pocahontas in the entire film).
John Smith (voiceover): They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession. Real, what I thought a dream.
Smith is allowed to stay on in the tribe and the chief hopes he can hasten his English compatriots to abandon their schemes to colonise the natives' land. Living amongst these uncomplicated and simple Powhatans, Smith comes to admire their way of life. He realises how dissimilar his own culture is to the Powhatans. And before long a deep bond of friendship between him and the young Pocahontas matures into romance. For Smith who has been tortured and disillusioned by the harshness of exploration, this place, this love can only be his Eden, "a dream." But we must remember this is a tragedy – Smith's happiness will be short-lived. Bound to civic duty he and Pocahontas are now torn between obligation to their people and love for each other. They are passionate but inexperienced, strong-willed yet at the mercy of honour and responsibility.
John Smith (voiceover): Who are you?
Pocahontas (voiceover): Who are you?
John Rolfe (voiceover): Who are you?
Cutting down to the bone "The New World" is how Smith and Pocahontas change emotionally and spiritually through the ecstasy and torment of a union forbidden. It is about how love can heal and hurt, how it can liberate and smite – and why, regardless of consequences, we still surrender ourselves to it. I am reminded of a memorable line from the film spoken by Christian Bale's John Rolfe, a plantation farmer who weds Pocahontas when John Smith deserts her: "Sweet wife, love made the bond, love can break it too. I think you still love the man. In my vanity, I thought I could make you love me and one can not do that or should not." Should Rolfe despise Pocahontas if she, in her innocuousness, is unable to forget her first love Smith? Letting go of someone you adore is an incredibly noble gesture, and Bale completely disappears into Rolfe, underplaying his character with grace and nobility. It is a rare performance of subtlety that can, if one is careless, be overlooked.
"The New World" is an exquisitely crafted film. To capture the elegance of the Natives' habitat, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Mallick shot the film almost entirely with available light and using the 65mm film stock. Such was Mallick's obsession with detail he also recruited a professor of linguistics to recreate the extinct language of Virginian Algonquian for the film and he shot on location at the Chickahominy River not far from the site of the real events. Mallick also combined pieces of James Horner's majestic score with Wagner's Rheingold and Mozart's piano concerto nr. 23. "The New World" simply cries out to be experienced in the splendor of a cinema.
Fundamentally, "The New World" is about a distinguished aspect of humanity – our capacity to love and evolve through it. Mallick also imbues this main theme with a sly elegy of an America that once was, and the America that is now. And, thus, despite the sometimes meandering narrative, the film is endearing in its incurable romanticism. Terence Mallick's new film may be flawed (by his own high standards) but it is an affirmation of cinema as an art form in all its magnificence and purity and invention. "The New World" is a work of great power. - Adnan Khan