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Saturday, January 21, 2006

The New World: Film Review

Last night I had a date with myself and saw The New World, a film by Terrence Malick and starring Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, and Q’Orianka Kilcher. I was a bit skeptical going in because anytime Hollywood produces a period piece based on historical events, there’s room for interpretation and misrepresentation. Coming away, however, I was quite surprised at how good the film was and the unique approach the filmmakers took to retelling the story of John Smith and Pocahontas.


The Story

The majority of the film is set in what is today Virginia at the Jamestown colony and the surrounding area. It starts with the first English colonists arriving in Virginia to the bewilderment of “the naturals”, who don’t know quite what to make of the pale, dirty, and odorous strangers. Initially, they take the invaders arriving on their impressive vessels as gods from above and hesitantly welcome them to their lands. This of course doesn’t last very long once the Indians realize the English are here to take over. The story focuses on John Smith (played by Colin Farrell) who becomes infatuated with a young Indian girl played by a new actress, Q’Orianka Kilcher. Their relationship is based on that of Smith and Pocahontas although in The New World, we get a more realistic idea of what that may have played out. It should be noted that the John Smith-Pocahontas love story is largely myth. Both were historical figures but the details of their relationship and interactions are vague (there is a great piece in the Jan/Feb 2006 Archaeology magazine about Jamestown which mentions the film). When John Smith leaves Jamestown and Pochahontas (who is never referred to by that name in the entire film) believes he is dead, new colonist John Rolfe (Christian Bale) moves in and falls for her as well. He takes her as his wife and they have a child, living a seemingly happy life as Jamestown begins to flourish after a rough start. The rest of the film is about her experience with finding love and discovering its true nature.

The Film

Overall, I was impressed and left the theater satisfied. The first half of the film was the most entertaining (for me at least) because it focused on the landing in Virginia, the construction of the Jamestown fort, and the interactions with the Natives. The latter aspect was by far the most impressive because as far as I could tell, this was a pretty accurate portrayal of Native American life at the time of colonization. The costume and makeup of the indigenous actors was breathtaking down to the last detail and I saw those historic engravings come to life before my eyes. Also, from what I understand this is the first film to employ Virginia Algonquian, the language spoken at the time (National Geographic news has a fascinating story about this here). Linguists and historians were able to reconstruct the language from historical documents written by the colonists, including John Smith. As I anticipate with Mel Gibson’s upcoming film Apocalypto about the ancient Maya, this film is important if only because of the reconstruction and preservation of an indigenous language.



I am not the biggest fan of Colin Farrell, although he did a decent job in The New World. He wasn’t as annoying as he normally is perhaps because he was so reserved during this movie and his emotional outbursts were limited to important turning points in the film, something that added to the drama of the storyline. Q’Orianka Kilcher as Pochahontas was simply amazing. She is a young actor, 14 at the time the film was made, so she was very believeable and John Smith’s forbidden love interest. Far from being prurient, the scenes between her and Farrell seemed real. The filmmakers did an excellent job of editing, never showing the two in anything more than an intimate embrace. Knowing that the actor who plays Pochahontas is very young and that the historical Pochahontas was very young as well contributes greatly to the realism of their relationship (emphasized for dramatic effect in the film), which John Smith must hide from his fellow colonists. Christian Bale, who plays the newcomer colonist and tobacco farmer John Rolfe, was amazing as expected. Bale is one of my favorite actors and The New World is proof that he can pull off anything. His relationship with Pochahontas didn’t seemed forced despite the circumstances.


Overall, The New World was worth my student discount at the theater and worthy of a purchase when it comes out on DVD (although I recommend seeing it in the theater). This is a Hollywood film with all the trappings of one, but it wasn’t overproduced nor did it do a grave injustice to historical fact aside from perhaps embellishing John Smith and Pocahontas' intimacy. As I mentioned above, this most fascinating aspect of the film was hearing the Virginian Algonquian language and seeing early Native Americans come to life. I also enjoyed how the name "Pochahontas" is never spoken once in 2 1/2 hours. With all of the gross misrepresentations of Native American life associated with retellings of the Pochahontas story, the absence in this movie of the name was refreshing. As an anthropologist, I don’t need a movie to tell me that the Indians were real people with very real feelings, but this film may do just that for those with little or no knowledge of indigenous life at the time of contact.

Posted by Will at January 21, 2006 01:04 PM in In the News


I finally saw this last night and thought it was a great film. Good review Will.

Posted by: archaeoman [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 10, 2006 12:46 PM