The best film of 2005 was all about one moment. While it clocks in at two-and-a-half hours, Terrence Malick’s The New World is really about the emotional ripples caused by that moment throughout history, shaping the destiny of an entire nation that came after. The moment I speak of is the first meeting of the Jamestown settlers and the “naturals” of Virginia. This is the story we are all familiar with: white men come to America, John Smith meets Pocahontas, we know the rest. We know how it happened, but what we have forgotten is how that collision of two worlds entirely “new” to one another would have felt. It is a moment full of curiosity, wonder and fear. It seems cliché to say that a movie makes history come alive, but this film does that in a way that is different from most others: it focuses on one emotional point and lets the audience feel it the entire time.
That is the beauty of The New World: that one moment shapes the destinies of all the characters entwined in it. Colin Farrell’s John Smith becomes entranced in that other culture, in both their traditions and their princess, Pocahontas. Other settlers are immediately fearful, reacting with both confrontation and isolation. Soon the two worlds become so wrapped up in one another that it is clear they will never again be complete and intact. It is both a violent and wondrous discovery.
Malick’s skilled direction makes this emotional journey much different than expected. Instead of resorting to historical epic stereotypes, he tells an extremely visual story keen on emotional impact. Rarely do I find a contemporary production so in tune with the basic nature of film as this one is. With most of the dialogue done with voiceovers, Malick lets his images tell the story. That is not to say that he is lacking in his use of sound; indeed, he knows how to use both silence and James Horner’s driving score to full effect. The performances are also notable, especially 15 year old Q’Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas, as well as Christian Bale and Christopher Plummer, in smaller roles.
All of these actors and production elements come together to create a beautiful and moving story, one that resonates as an American legend and as basic human drama.