Hidden Gems: The New World
By Kyle Lee
December 11, 2017
The Native Americans watch apprehensively from the shoreline as huge ships approach from the ocean, bringing with them the English settlers. As they make first contact with each other, the Natives approach quizzically, fascinated by the English weapons and armor. The two sides get along fine for a while, and when Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) returns to England to bring back more ships, he leaves in charge Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell). Things turn sour quickly between the settlers and the "naturals" (as the English call them), and when out on an exploratory mission, Smith is captured by a group of Indians and is about to be executed before the Chief's daughter Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) throws herself on top of Smith and pleads for his life. The story proceeds from there with a terrific mix of legend and history, the most legendary of which is an achingly beautiful romance between Smith and Pocahontas, for which there is no historical basis. But, thankfully, we don’t mind when we’re given a beautiful and engaging love story like this.
The New World is kind of the black sheep in the filmography of director Terrence Malick, or at least is the most unfairly forgotten of the bunch. Malick is a film director unlike any other. A former Rhodes scholar who got a philosophy degree from Harvard, a subject he later taught at MIT, Malick worked as a Hollywood script doctor (someone who gets paid to do uncredited rewrites of scripts) before making his first movie at age 30 with 1973's Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a couple who go on a killing spree through the Midwest (like The New World, a fictional story based in facts, in that case with the Charles Starkweather murders that would later inspire Bruce Springsteen’s classic album Nebraska). It was lauded by critics as a masterpiece, and Malick followed it up with 1978's Days of Heaven, with Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, and Sam Shepard in a love triangle set against the backdrop of a poetically gorgeous Texas wheat farm. Also hailed as a masterpiece, Malick's next project was highly anticipated, but he stepped away, disappearing from the film business for 20 years before returning with 1998's WWII epic The Thin Red Line, which was hailed again as a masterpiece and garnered Malick Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Director (the movie itself was nominated for 5 other awards, including Best Picture). He thankfully didn't wait another 20 years before giving us The New World in 2005. He’s made more movies since then, including 2011’s acclaimed Tree of Life, but I think The New World deserves more attention. The story is told with Malick's trademark narration (by both Smith and Pocahontas), and his unconventional, and some say meandering, storytelling technique.
The performance by newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas is of startling complexity and depth. She's fascinated by these new people, and wants to learn about them and their ways, as well as their language. There's a wonderful sequence where Pocahontas and John Smith teach each other their different words for lips, eyes, ears, sky, wind, etc. and both actors truly shine. Although she has continued to act, we haven't really seen Q'Orianka Kilcher since The New World, and that's a shame because she gave one of the great performances I’ve ever seen from a lead actress. Kilcher is staggering in the growth she shows on screen, starting out as a curious teenager connecting with Smith. They end up sharing their language and hearts with each other before Pocahontas grows up to marry John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and eventually become a young mother and aristocrat in England.
Colin Farrell shows here (as he has done in movies like In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, or The Lobster) that he's a tremendous actor when given the right material. You can feel his disgust and contempt for the English when he returns from living harmoniously with the Native Americans, whom he came to love and respect and deeply admire, and Farrell does it without words. Christian Bale is quietly effective in the role of John Rolfe, but we get the sense that it was Smith and not Rolfe that was the man who really understood Pocahontas and whom she truly loved. And the Native actors, led by August Schellenberg and Wes Studi speak and move and give so much gravity and authenticity (even speaking the period appropriate, and now extinct Powhatan/Virginia Algonquian language spoken at the time) to the movie in ways that we haven’t ever really seen, in my mind. Despite being a movie of historical fiction, the attention to historical detail is astounding.
But again, Q’Orianka Kilcher is the real story here, as she was robbed of every award that didn't go to her (and no major awards did). She was only 14 at the time of filming, but that's not why her performance is incredible, she shows such a depth of characterization, such intense and confused emotions, and ultimately plays an understanding of those emotions to an extent that few actors can. It is one of the great performances, and reason enough to see this movie.
Another reason to see the movie is for the incredible cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (who received the film’s only Oscar nomination). Lubezki and Malick create such visual poetry in every facet of the movie, whether it be the innocent love scenes between Farrell and Kilcher, the chaos of the battles between the English and the Indians, or just simple scenes of Kilcher walking through the forest. There is not a frame of this movie that isn't absolutely gorgeous. Of course, that much is to be expected from a Malick movie. His Days of Heaven has to be in the conversation as the most beautiful movie ever made. But again, The New World doesn’t get the love it deserves. I hope to remedy that a bit.
Malick’s movies aren’t for everyone. He has his own distinct style of storytelling that many have called unfocused or rambling. He often tells his stories through the small moments; walks through the tall grass, stolen bits of memories gone by, meaningful glances and always a lot of narration, usually from multiple characters. If you can surrender yourself to his style, I think you’ll find yourself greatly rewarded by this Hidden Gem.