The New World sits in the middle of Terrence Malick’s career. It is more narrative laden than his later work, but approaching the abstraction he now inhabits. It has a story, but everything is told with images and loose voiceover. It is intuitive rather than expository. It is an audacious mood piece, becoming a poem rather than a story or film. Few pieces of cinema are like this, and even fewer are so glorious.
The New World follows some of the first European colonists to reach America, specifically those in Jamestown. It is about the foundation of a new land, a new way of being. These people were the last explorers of an alien world. We can no longer do that on our planet. The New World dares to be authentic, drawing on hundreds of pieces of art to construct history, nature, and mankind itself, all as part of a moving tapestry that ebbs and flows like the tide. The New World is the purity of history. These are the people who shaped today, but they were just people. We can only imagine what their lives must have been like. Few films detail history like this one does. Every single moment of The New World feels like the past, or how at least we metaphysically sense the past. It is a film of wordless song, with each scene a symphony. This is totally immersive cinema.
The New World has a dual meaning, for this time was also one of discovery for the Native Americans. Both Europeans and Americans culturally exchanged. So few films and stories cover this time, with 1776 almost seen as the default beginning of history for many. Yet The New World presents America before there were any settlers. Through John Smith, played by Colin Farrell, we see America as it was originally. He finds the native inhabitants to live in a pure world, one he deems as without vice. The New World is the story of John Smith redeemed, as he starts in chains and this new, pure world saves his soul. He wanders, musing on the new society that could be created. His idealism is a form of revolutionary thought, knowing better systems and structures could be in place. The grey, wooden soulless fort that represents civilisation is detached from the world. Nature is cut down and displaced, the world isn’t new, it is remade to emulate the old. These men are the precursor to capitalism, as they are merchants and explorers looking for their own glory rather than to further feudalism. Yet Smith becomes disillusioned when he confronts an alternative way of living, namely the primitive communism of the native tribe.
The New World is a meditation on the soul of man. It’s about how far we have come and how much we have lost. We no longer have a connection to nature, our world, and ourselves. The conflict here is not presented as war, but spiritual failure. They could have had peace but enough people embraced ignorance and violence. The land is an endless spiritual being, but we straddle both the grace of man and the savage conqueror within us. Smith wrestles over his soul as he finds himself the enemy of those he respects and loves. The New World is about becoming a monster. It about the power struggles among men, and the weaknesses we find in one another. The concept of how we would act in an alien world is hard to comprehend, but history has shown us the answer and The New World captures that perfectly. The edge of civilisation may also be the edge of civility.
The New World is a love story, capturing the purest of love. The film follows Pocahontas and the film sees the settlers through her eyes more than any other. Actress Q’orianka Kilcher was fourteen when The New World was shot, and she gives a stunning, naturalistic performance. The narrative also shifts away from John Smith, to become focused on her. While The New World is at first hopeful and wondrous, it slowly gives way to a deep sadness. Pocahontas is displaced from her culture and can no longer go back, almost representative of the changes all Native Americans would face as Europeans arrived. The new world was here to stay and the force of greedy men knows no bounds. The New World is so bittersweet. The overwhelming sadness of seeing a culture brought to its end is immensely moving, yet that is what our history shows us. The world is built on the back of these actions.
The New World is a bold and wondrous piece of cinema. Emmanuel Lubzeki’s amazing cinematography, his first of five Malick collaborations, captures all the beauty of a sunset in almost every frame. The cast are uniformly amazing, with the supporting actors including Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, David Thewlis, August Schellenberg, Wes Studi, Ben Mendelsohn, Eddie Marsan, and Jonathan Pryce in a cameo. The New World is like a map from the era, sketched incomplete and leaving an impression rather than anything definitive. Though it feels like no better film could be made about these early settlers. It is a calm and serene movie, even as it explores the ever-changing cycles of man. While the film peaks in the first act, its emotional power lingers for the full runtime. When the music swells over the final montage, it is hard not to have tears in your eyes.
The Criterion release includes the three following cuts – Extended Version (172:03), Theatrical Cut (135:42), First Cut (150:20). The other extras includes making of documentaries and interviews with various cast and crew and a comparison of the various cuts with editor Mark Yoshikawa. The booklet includes an essay by film scholar Tom Gunning, a 2006 interview with Lubezki from American Cinematographer, and a selection of materials that inspired the production.