John Smith (Colin Farrell) is part of the British expedition that sails into the new land of America bringing settlers to a new Eden. Exploring the lush landscape and encountering the indigenous, Indian peoples, Smith’s journey is ours. And when he meets Pocahontas, the young daughter of a tribal leader, his discovery of love and longing takes us on parallel journey into the unknown. In spite of gifts from the Indian peoples – a cause for Thanksgiving indeed – the settlers are soon stricken by disease, inability to work the land, and a growing distrust of their leaders. Unease leads to unrest as the peaceable Kingdom goes the way of the original Eden. Against it all, can Smith and Pocahontas survive and stay together?
That last question assumes a more formal plot than you’ll find in a Terrence Malick film. Malick is a poet first and foremost. Water, greenery, breezes and sounds – these are more important than the script. Narrative hangs very loosely and The New World will bore you rigid if you’re looking for a straight love story or a new-world-conquest movie like Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Scott’s Columbus epic trod the same ground, but Malick’s explosions are not those of cannons and muskets, but of senses stirred and stunned by things newly experienced.
It’s a thrilling achievement. What must it have been like to see a new land, and a strange people, for the first time? Malick shows it from the perspective of the Indians and the English. Filmed in natural light, and with heightened sound, we are without meridians, moving to the very sights, sounds and feelings of discovery.
A shade too long. And it’s sad to end the film in courtly England. But that only underlines the tragedy that is at the heart of this film: paradise - of land or love – is always at risk from the machinations of mankind.