During her recent trip to New York, the cinetrix was fortunate enough to insinuate herself into a press screening of The New World. The next evening, I joked to Messers Cinephiliac and Filmbrain that my lede would be this:
Terence Malick has done the impossible. He has made a movie about native Americans without Graham Greene.
Of course, Cinephiliac had to spoil things by pointing out the presence of Wes Studi, filmdom's other go-to guy for all things Indian. It must be like Canadian content rules or something.
Regardless, I enjoyed all two-plus hours of Malick's latest iteration of the expulsion from Eden. Believe everything you hear about Q'Orianka Kilcher's performance as the unnamed Pocohontas [later "Rebecca"]: hers is a face that facinates, as mutable as the light on water the second unit constantly captures. Even Colin Fookin' Farrell manages to harness some of his early, intense promise as Captain John Smith, the man who goes native [although I did wonder at his being the only complexion not carbuncular]. And true to Malick form, there are glimpses of actors like Ben Chaplin, Noah Taylor, and David Thewlis so brief that there must be a six-hour version of the film somewhere.
By all rights, I should have seen this movie with the 'Fesser, who actually works on this period, so I could duly report all the liberties that had been taken with the facts. I do know that historians have suggested that John Smith himself played loose and fast with the details in his accounts of the voyage to Virginia, so there is precedent for the film's creative license. But the cinetrix, like Malick, is not overly interested in story.
Instead, I'd like to talk a little bit about interiority. Malick aligns the viewers with the English settlers first thing, denying us subtitled access to the natives' dialogue until John Smith is brought before the native leader Powhatan and Pocohontas, his favorite child, begs him to spare Smith's life. For the rest of the time Smith spends among the natives, we are given subtitles and voiceovers a go-go, along with charming tableaus in which he and Pocohontas give each other lessons, first in language, then in love. Once he returns to the English settlement and spring arrives, the subtitles disappear again. Why?
According to the press materials, much of Smith's voiced-over observations were lifted wholesale from his writings. But, perhaps conveniently, Pocohontas left no written record behind, which is what makes the subject of her spoken reveries so fascinating. She can be whomever Malick wants her to be. For her, the titular new world is one of abstractions. What I found particularly interesting is how she marvels about concepts like "change" and "dream" and employs the conditional tense with aplomb as she explores uncharted territories.
In time, Pocohontas submits to the Anglicizing efforts of the settlers, "going native" and adopting the constrictions of corsets and Christianity with grace. She even travels to England with her English husband and their son for an audience with the king and queen. In a lovely little moment, when she alights on the docks, she encounters an African, and they smile wordlessly at each other, two strangers. Simultaneously "Rebecca" and "the Indian Princess," in her voiceovers she remains nameless and caught between the two new worlds until the very end, dying during the outward passage on the ocean that touches both shores.