The history of America is short. But for a nation whose taproot in the first British settlements is so thoroughly documented, it's still a history overgrown with copious mythologizing.
Terrence Malick unearths that mythology, and cultivates it fresh, in his beautiful The New World. It's set mostly in 1607 on the coast of what we now call Virginia, where a couple shipfuls of Britons have come seeking the storied riches of a continent still largely untrodden by Europeans. Their rude encampment, Jamestown, sits on the edge of Algonquian territory, and here Malick tells his own version of the story of Capt. John Smith and the Indian princess Pocahantas.
Malick opens New World with the sort of evocation of nature, and man in harmony with it, for which he's been justly acclaimed. An underwater sequence of Native Americans at play, seeming to swim across a blue sky, recalls the idyllic portrait of South Seas island life in his World War II epic, The Thin Red Line.
But while he foreshadows the imminent arrival of London Trading Company frigates by littering a clear stream with dead buds, Malick attempts something more complex than merely telling the story from a Native American perspective. He paints a rich portrait of two cultures intensely at odds, and of the new thing forged in the awful conflict.
At his best, Malick seamlessly blends personal stories with symbolic history, and sensual realism with a visionary's dreamlike imagery. The film is structured as a series of imprisonments, starting with those of Smith -- who arrives in Jamestown in a mutineer's bonds only to end up in Algonquian captivity -- and concluding with those of Pocahantas (who's never addressed by that name in the film). Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahantas (Q'orianka Kilcher) meet when her father holds him prisoner and she famously prevents his execution. But while Pocahantas is partially responsible for Algonquian aid to the starving colonists, her own removal to Jamestown is as a wartime hostage, traded for a copper kettle. She's laced into a corset, baptized "Rebecca" and married to colonist John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who completes the film's geocultural circle by bringing her to England.
The New World's title refers to virgin real estate only ironically. What's really new is the space that forms between cultures which have never known anything but themselves. Those who don't adapt, Malick suggests, are doomed, including arrogantly clueless colonials: "Eden lies about us still," intones a Jamestown panjundrum (Christopher Plummer) to Brits who've made a sty of their bit of marshland. But those who hazard that space too soon also court their own sorrows.
Nearly unique among contemporary American filmmakers, writer-director Malick communicates on a grand scale without the crutch of conventional narrative, let alone snappy dialogue or rousing speeches. The film's violence, likewise, though it comes suddenly and brutally, is never cathartic. As common as dialogue are interior monologues by Pocahantas, Smith and Rolfe; as in Thin Red Line, the device is often portentous, but it's probably best understood as a kind of musical accompaniment, another aspect of the elegantly restrained James Horner score. Like a silent-era filmmaker, Malick speaks most clearly in pictures -- through the vitreous light captured by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and in images as rich and stunning as lines of poetry.
Like a housecat nosing into a bookcase, Malick's own cultural assumptions nest in The New World. Smith, soulfully played by Farrell, feels a little too modern, fantasizing about surrendering his name; this contemporary of Shakespeare's should seem less familiar to us, less accessible. Likewise, though Kilcher is engaging as Pocahantas, she sometimes is too much the wood sprite, a flower child avant le lettre.
Still, as a group, Malick's Natives Americans -- "naturals," the settlers call them -- are marvelously rendered, earthy yet fantastic in paint and feathers. With any luck, his Indians and mud-spattered settlers will become our new icons of those overfamiliar types. Yet while based on evidence in the film you'd much rather have been an Algonquian than a Jamestonian, Malick romanticizes these remorseless warriors as noble and mysterious without idealizing them. And though few characters of any ethnicity are named, Malick's portrayals of natives and settlers alike is never caricature. The characterizations are too peculiar, down to the filthy, senselessly jabbering English boys who greet a half-gone-native Smith on his joyless return to Jamestown.
But The New World isn't revisionist history so much as an imaginative deepening of it. That's why the film's most poignantly jarring sight isn't that of vengeful Brits torching magnificent Algonquian lodges, or of Pochantas mourning Smith's departure in a misbegotten rat-scrabble village full of uncomprehending proto-honkies. It's not Smith returning from Algonquian captivity to Jamestown, a muddy stockade his countrymen's fruitless industry has blasted as clean of life as a mine crater -- nor Pocahantas awestruck in London, overwhelming and impossible with its horse-drawn carriages and sky-breaching stone castles. It's not even the scene in which Rolfe suggests that his unhappy Indian bride might regain her spirits by starting fresh -- in England.
Rather, it's a single shot of the modest gray clapboard house Rolfe builds in a field, and where he lives with Pocahantas, an unpalisaded freeman's farm plopped down in an alien land. The building looks as untenable as it looks inevitable. It looks, for better and worse, like America.