The New World

Filmspotting Homework No. 2

This exercise in preparing for Filmspotting Madness lo these many months away (seriously not until March of 2019, it’ll be here before you know it, shut up) started off very poorly with Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her. That film has not aged well. Hell, it’s a strong argument for takes like “Why the eff did we let it age at all?! Burn that trash!” Naturally, I followed that up with a film that a white man made about a certain Native American princess and English colonialists because if we’re gonna get all problematic, let’s get problematic.

The homework I’m talking about is Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World. Malick, ever one to surround himself with some friggin’ talent, got himself a remarkable set of actors and a totally amazing creative team for this film. James Horner scores this film beautifully, and, crucially, sparingly. Malick hired a new cinematographer, some dude named, let me see . . . Emmanuel, uh, Lubezki (you may have seen his work). Notable cast members include Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, Colin Farrell (and his actual tattoos), John Savage, Eddie Marsan, Noah Taylor for the English folk and Wes Studi, Kalani Queypo (recently seen at Arena in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty), and stunning newcomer (back in 2005), Q’orianka Kilcher for the Native Americans.

In one sign that we are dealing with an actually sophisticated take on when Plymouth Rock went and landed on the New World (in a manner of speaking, this is actually a movie about Jamestown, roll with me) no one in the film ever utters the syllables “Pocahontas.” We are well over an hour into the movie before anyone tries to name her and even then it’s to indicate that her past name is dead. After that, she is referred to by her new name Rebekah only a handful of times. Given how much has been said of the importance of naming things in order to exert dominion and ownership over those things, I think it is telling that Malick deliberately avoids the name, to let her exist before us as this luminous, graceful, expressive, forceful, loving person without resorting to the lazy short hand of applying the name tied to so many colonial myths.

Telling and really damn awkward for the purposes of this inexperienced reviewer. But bear with more for like 900 more words, I’m just going to refer to Kilcher’s character as “her” or “Rebekah” (ugh, if I have to). At any rate, she falls in love with Colin Farrell’s John Smith when he is a prisoner. The sequence where we can really tell that they are falling for each other, is when Smith absorbs her requests for English words for things. She moves and Smith puzzles out her meaning, always successfully, and then giving her the English translations for her movement. It’s a scene full of genuine personal connection but it’s also a clear demonstration of the colonizer’s worldview . . . Smith is constantly and happily telling her the English words for the concepts she demonstrates, but he never ever asks for or learns her word for these things. He is happy to bring her into his linguistic world, but he does not explore hers. Malick is giving one particular Englishman as much benefit of the doubt as he can and he still looks like an asshole, even at the peak of the love story.

Malick takes his time to establish it, but The New World is ultimately her film. This is only, and by then exquisitely, clear after she is abandoned by Smith and by her own people (for, well, aiding their enemy, which . . . fair). John Smith leaves her alone, destitute, and in absolute mourning, thinking that her lover is dead (a total lie). In her despair, and under the care of a well-meaning English woman who transforms her from a self-possessed mistress of the world around her into a struggling girl (and yo books could be written about this, wow), she encounters another Englishman, Christian Bale’s tobacco farming John Rolfe, who recognizes her strength, but not her . . . not all of her. But, she feels seen enough by Rolfe to marry him, have his child and go off to England . . . never to return to her native shores. Q’orianka Kilcher holds us transfixed through it all, through being in total harmony and at home with her surroundings, falling for the invader, being cast aside by her family for it and then forging herself a new family, not settling for the shit and dregs of the new folk, and always, always, always remembering the land she was from.

It’s easy to lose sight of this as she learns to walk in heels, sheds her name, learns to survive in the English camp, and is generally colonized by the English but, at the very end, there is a moment, it does not last long at all, where a Native American warrior suddenly occupies a seat that she used to sit in before bursting forth from this seat out into the grounds. It’s so brief, but so telling and evocative. Malick fills the last few minutes of the film with such strange juxtapositions, “Rebekah” in a dress climbing trees on the Rolfe estate, “Rebekah” relishing the feel of the water beneath her feet, utterly reveling in the water, and disregarding the state of her dress. She has succeeded at playing English but is still connected to the earth and to the water in a very non-English way (oh my gosh, Malick and Lubezki’s exquisite use of water in this film, both as source of stunning beauty, but also as an inspiration for the movement of the camera . . . you could write a book on this film alone, damn).

With The New World, Malick chose an enormously difficult task. He understood that the narrative of English survival at Jamestown is compelling for his audience, though it is entirely likely that his audience will view them as the “good guys.” He does so much to combat this. The English are backbiting and lack unity, they are nearly always starving, almost always driven to the point of insanity (John Savage and Eddie Marsan are spectacularly evocative of the doomsaying insanity that filled the heart of every settler). They survive only because of an extraordinary act of mercy from her and that costs her dearly. We appreciate that John Smith is a maverick but he tells her not to trust him . . . and he’s right. He experiences profound truths in the woods, alone with her as they fall in love, but all of the trappings of the culture that brought him to this land will lead him to betray her and her people and to be unkind and untrue to her in public, not through infidelity to her, but through brutality to her people. Farrell is expressive and his face is an absolutely crystal clear window to his torn soul as he does his gorram English duty and tears himself from love, not entirely understanding why even as he does it. He is certainly regretful at his choices later in an extraordinary meeting with her where she comes to appreciate what an interesting person Rolfe is: “You are the man I thought you were,” the ultimate contrast with John Smith, who never could manage to be the man she thought he was.

And that’s The New World in a nutshell really. It’s a film that grasps the importance of melodrama to history, that takes the emotion of it seriously. We witness her despair at losing Smith, we know and experience her trip back from despair with Rolfe, himself a widower. offers melodrama weighed down by the seriousness of history, which is to say, cultural history explored through the smaller more intimate emotional journeys of the players. It’s very effective, especially since it’s quite conscious of the toxicity of some of these historical happenings. It’s probably too generous to the English and certainly this princess who marries an influential tobacco farmer ends up a little lost in the trappings of England and the life of the Old World, so I will not go so far as to call it woke history, but it is not ignorant of injustice nor does it entirely shed the guilt of being borne of that injustice.

Far from being as problematic as Talk to Her, The New World shows itself to be thoughtful, studied, and steeped in the pursuit of both history and beauty in profoundly meaningful ways. It may not entirely succeed with the very problematic story it seeks to tell, but it doesn’t utterly lose the plot either. I’m guessing that The New World gets bounced in the first round, but everyone who takes the time to do the homework will be richly rewarded.



Theatre. Sports. Econ. Cocktails. General geekery. The usual.

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