They came from faraway lands, not sure what they’d find. They were the settlers of Jamestown, some of the first European immigrants to a new world.
In The New World, his re-imagining of those long-ago days, director Terrence Malick really captures the sense of mysterious wonder that the early pilgrims must have felt as they stepped on what would be American soil. Dream-like and beautiful to watch, it’s less like a movie than it is a kind of floating painting.
As one of the first settlers to Jamestown, Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) ends up captured by a tribe of Native Americans. His life is spared only through the efforts of the chief’s daughter (Q’orianka Kilcher — the name “Pocahantas” is never uttered in the movie, but that’s who this is meant to be), and she and Smith fall in love.
Smith is obligated to his fellow colonists, who struggle to make a home in this new land. Ultimately, of course, America is born – but at what cost to the free and gorgeous world in which the Indians lived?
Farrell delivers one of his best performances as the laconic Smith, who’s presented as a soulful explorer. The real discovery of The New World is the wonderful Kilcher, just 15 years old, who reinvents Pocahantas as a kind of American spirit incarnate, beautiful and wild, yet caught up in history’s tumult.
It’s not a passive experience. If you go with the flow, The New World is transforming, a kind of historical trance caught on film. With his slow, lingering takes and eye for landscape details, Malick is painting a picture on screen. His vision is unique in modern American film.
Seen in a different light, The New World will strike many viewers as pretentious, overlong, and boring. The somewhat stilted voiceover monologues by the various characters didn’t really work for me — Malick’s strength is imagery, not words. There were long stretches when the movie slipped from leisurely to glacial in pace.
If you’re willing to be shown, there’s a genuine power to The New World, in its vision of innocence lost and a world forever changed by those first few men stumbling onto a distant shore.