Sense and Sensibility on the Chesapeake
On a misty April morning in 1607, three tall, square-rigged English ships glide up the wide, luminous estuary of what is now the James River. Instead of discovering the land from the ships, we discover the ships from the land, as a band of Powhatan Indians trot along a ridge, marveling at what must have been the seventeenth-century equivalent of alien spacecraft.
Yet wisely, The New World does not presume to plumb the Powhatans’ reactions. Rather the camera floats behind their backs, offering a detached perspective on the whole majestic scene. Best of all, writer-director Terrence Malick decided at the last minute to accompany this scene not with the pretty noodlings of James Horner’s commissioned score, but with music that is truly sublime: the murmuring, rising, surging prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
“The soul of beauty is distance,” wrote Simone Weil, and Malick’s best work bears this out. No other living director can touch him when it comes to natural panoramas, filmed here by Emmanuel Lubezki entirely on 65mm stock (the first time this has been done since Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet). In several such glorious sequences The New World gives something like a God’s-eye view of that first, fraught encounter between the Old World and the New. Film critics who do not thrill to such achievements should take up another line of work.
But film is not just a visual art, it’s also a narrative art. And while Malick has hold of a terrific yarn (at least, Captain John Smith thought so when he invented parts of it), this film tangles the spinning of it. By now, everyone knows that Pocahontas was only 11 when she begged her papa, Chief Wahunsonacock (a.k.a Powhatan) not to puree Captain Smith’s head. From this fact sober historians deduce that the two could not possibly have been lovers. (In a dark corner of my mind, a little voice squeaks, “Why not? This is Virginia.” But let us not go there.)
Historians also note that such staged reprieves were a customary form of hospitality among powerful Algonkian chiefs. Which makes sense, really: if your host has the power to crush your skull but refrains from doing so, then you are all the more likely to follow your visit with a thank-you note. At any rate, Malick does not waste much time on this legendary scene, choosing through blinding chiaroscuro and tortured camera angles to make it appear less an historical set piece than a reject from the Stoned Otter Indie Film Festival.
Malick is respected for his screenplays. But never before has he attempted anything quite this ambitious. In his first successful feature, Badlands, about a killing spree carried out by two aimless teenagers in South Dakota, he had a headline-grabbing story to tell. In Days of Heaven, he had the idiom of his native Texas to set a wry, laconic tone. In The Thin Red Line, he had James Jones’s World War II memoir to adapt. Here, by contrast, there is no clear guide, only multiple, conflicting, obscure sources. And for all his cinematic gifts, Malick seems somewhat lacking in the one thing most needful: historical imagination.
Somewhat, not totally. If you want the historical imagination strangled in its crib, see the 1953 clunker, Captain John Smith and Pocahontas (Peyton Place in deerskin), or the 1995 Disney cartoon Pocahontas (Barbie and Ken in a canoe). The New World, by contrast, commits one major anachronism but also works to correct it. In brief, it goes from overripe romanticism to something more sober and ultimately moving, then (unfortunately) back to romanticism. It should have quit while it was ahead.
The romanticism comes first, in the form of a prolonged sunlit dalliance between Smith (played broodingly by Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (played brilliantly by 14-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher, the striking daughter of a Swiss mother and a Peruvian Indian father). These love scenes are served just the way a certain middlebrow audience prefers, with a dollop of Mozart on top and a sprinkling of bad poetry:
Love, ... shall we not take what is given?
... There is only this. All the rest is unreal.
Father, where do you live? In the sky, the clouds, the sea?
Show me your face, give me a sign ... We rise, we rise.
I gag, I gag. It is possible that the hard-charging Smith was stopped in his tracks by unexpected tenderness for this almond-eyed Lolita. And it is possible that Pocahontas, by all reports an extraordinary individual, was a Kierkegaardian animist before she became a good Anglican. But please. When such characters speak, they need to sound as though they are living in their own time, not ours – or worse, the time of D. H. Lawrence and Mabel Dodge Luhan, when pale-faced aesthetes sought transcendence through sexual intercourse, Native Americans, and (where possible) sexual intercourse with Native Americans.
Eventually Smith leaves, and a bereft Pocahontas allows herself to be wooed and won by John Rolfe, the man who taught the world to smoke. Why does Smith leave? The reasons are not entirely clear in the 135-minute version now showing in theaters, but it seems he has difficulty sustaining the proper romantic mood through a winter of starvation, relieved only by the generosity of the Indians, and a summer of warfare, ignited when Powhatan (August Schelling) and his brother Opechancanough (Wes Studi) realize that the English are planting corn and planning to expand their holdings.
Believing Smith dead and held captive by the English, Pocahontas loses her spark until the sweet-faced Rolfe (Christian Bale) delicately rekindles it. Interestingly, he does so without ceasing to be thoroughly, and unapologetically, English. This is not Dances With Wolves: not all the virtue is on the Indian side. For example, the female of English species arrives in Jamestown looking cold and pasty, quite the unappealing dish compared with our heroine. But surprise surprise, the English matron put in charge of “civilizing” Pocahontas turns out to be a wise and kindly soul whose lessons are eagerly absorbed by her pupil.
At this point, the film takes a turn for the better, not because it favors the English way of life over the Powhatan, but because it does not, for the sake of political correctness, grossly distort the choice that Pocahontas did in fact make.
Things stay on the right track until the dramatic peak of the story, which is the return of Captain Smith. In a marvelously depicted voyage to England, Pocahontas (baptized Rebecca) lends her charm to what is essentially a PR campaign on the part of the floundering Virginia Company of London. These scenes are magical in their ability to evoke a sense of astonishment similar to that found in the abovementioned scene of ships on the James River. For a fleeting moment, my eyes felt were gazing not at another movie set version of merrie olde England but at the amazing apparition London must have been to Pocahontas.
But Pocahontas is troubled. Having learned that her first love is still alive, she grows cool toward Rolfe, prompting him to risk everything on an arranged meeting between her and Smith. The encounter, which takes place in a formal garden, is both subtle and powerful. Smith is much the same, but through some alchemy of voice and expression Farrell makes this man who was wild and romantic amid the tall grass of Virginia seem shrunken and coarse amid the London topiary. Pocahontas, by contrast, has grown in stature. Elegant and restrained, she takes Smith’s measure, and almost before she realizes it, she has decided to stay with Rolfe. “Did you find your Indies?” she asks Smith before they part. He gives her a long look, then says, “I may have sailed right past them.”
Cut, that’s a wrap. No need for Smith’s next line: “I thought it was a dream, what we knew in the forest. But it was the truth, the only truth.” Romance isn’t the only truth here, that’s the whole point. When Malick re-edits this film for DVD, the word is that he plans to make it longer. Great, if this means further development of the clash between English and Powhatan, and more lingering vision of strange worlds. But please, cut the New Age mush. It’s important when you have a great story not to sail right past it.