In The New World, what a character thinks, says or feels is not necessarily be right or true. For a deeply phenomenological film, one that often has the characters narrate their deepest yearnings, the film is constantly undercutting and usurping the feelings, sentiments and ideas of the characters as false, an illusion, a dream or a betrayal of who they are. Both the idealism of a “virgin” land of the European colonialism and John Smith’s (Collin Farrell) Romanization of the Native Americans is wrong.
In one scene, Smith pontificates on how this new land will forgo the need for men to exploit each other as there is plenty for all, already ignoring the acts of thievery and violence committed by both Englishmen and the Native Americans. In the Extended Cut version of the film, the narration is even playing while Smith’s own men are stealing from the Native Americans. He’s blinded by his own idealism of the world.
While Terrence Malick uses the macro story of the founding of Jamestown as a deconstruction of romanticism of the exploration and early years of America through the use of a Romanticized view that ultimately fails to understand or alleviate the problems at hand, the core of the film is a story about love, how people experience it, feel it, and are quick to mistake bursts of passion for the slow burn of true love.
The film opens with the fairy tale, the one in which John Smith and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) fall in love. It’s clear from the narration, many taken from texts written from that period of time, that Terrence Malick did his research as a screenwriter on the period. He’s clearly aware of the story’s status as a fairy tale and plays up that aspect. In a lot of ways, one could argue their love story falls in line to the grand Disney worldview of the princess fairytale.
In fact, one could make the strong argument that the love story between Smith and Pocahontas is supposed to be viewed as unreal, an illusion, a fairy tale. Smith even goes on to call their love a dream. The breakup absolutely crushes Pocahontas. This is a sweeping, melodramatic love story with intense highs, throes of passion, sweeping declarations of love (albeit, almost all in narration in this film).
Enter John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the historical husband of Pocahontas. He comes to love her as well, but his love expresses itself in a much different way. It’s not strong declarations of passion or the sensual driven passion Pocahontas had with Smith. Rolfe’s already lost a wife and child. He’s a bit more reserved, more practical. He’s clearly fascinated, and several scenes in the Extended Cut make it clear there’s a deep passion behind his love, but he doesn’t act on impulse like Smith.
In the traditional Hollywood film Rolfe would lose Pocahontas because he’s not romantic or passionate enough, but Terrence Malick suggests that the human heart is far too prone to let these feelings take one captive. The love between Rolfe and Pocahontas grows gradually, over a pursuit of tilling the earth, raising their child and quiet, wordless walks.
Malick focuses a lot on the gestures, on the hands, on the feet, on the eyes. What people look, how they touch each other, speaks profoundly. Smith and Pocahontas become fascinated with each other’s bodies, their eyes long. In contrast, Rolfe seems reluctant to be too close to Pocahontas, as if touching her might make her disappear. But his eyes show something deeper, a sympathy towards someone who has also felt loss and pain.
Instead of building love on passion, their relationship is built on a mutual recognition that both people are in pain and through companionship they might be able to lessen the pain of another. There is still passion and pleasure, but it’s not the end goal, the overriding factor, that which defines and sustains the relationship. The final moments reinforce that, when a selfless act of comfort, not a declaration of passion, becomes the ultimate expression of love.
Like all of Malick’s films, The New World is a film the audience feels more than anything else. But Malick is constantly showing the audience that feeling alone is no way to go about the world. Only through opening one’s eyes to the lives of another can we begin to truly express love and see the world renewed. Cinema affords us this perspective and Malick uses it masterfully.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing