The meticulous moviemaker has taken the story of Pocahontas and John Smith as the subject of his fourth film. Shooting on location in Jamestown, Virginia, Malick charts the early English settlers arriving at the New World in April of 1607 in three small ships, with soldier of fortune Smith (Colin Farrell) locked in the hold awaiting the noose for mutinous insubordination.
However, once on land, Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) releases the prisoner, realizing that he needs every able-bodied man, particularly one with Smith’s military skills. Newport then returns to the Old World for supplies and more colonists.
Now respected as Jamestown’s leader, Smith is sent up river to seek assistance from “the naturals,” who kill his men and capture him. What follows is the well-known saving of Smith by the Lolita-like daughter, Pocahontas (newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher), of all-powerful Chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg).
Pocahontas (whose name is never used in the film) hangs out with Smith and learns his lingo. She also learns that the Englishman’s movie star good looks lead to love and the two become an item. The romance is conveyed in gorgeous poetic cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and with a swirling James Horner symphonic score.
Then, it’s back to reality when Smith returns to his starving colonists, now in a makeshift fort. After the heavenly bliss of the Indian Garden of Eden, the English invaders appear ugly inside and out. They’re greedy and petty, while the Native Americans are one with nature.
Chief Powhatan wants the colonists to leave, but Pocahontas repeatedly comes to their aid, providing them with food and seed. Her big sell-out, however, is tipping off the English before her people attack. That results in her banishment from the tribe and her sale by another tribe to the colonists for a metal pot. Smith rebels against her treatment as a piece of barter and loses his leadership status.
The Indian princess adapts to living with the whites, but Smith shows a strange uneasiness with her. In fact, Farrell conveys this with an expression of consternation or, maybe, constipation.
When Newport returns, the hero takes off on another oceangoing exploration, leaving orders to tell Pocahontas that he’s died at sea.
The third act of the snail-paced 135-minute epic has aristocrat John Rolfe (Christian Bale) showing up and marrying the reluctant princess. After they have a child, the three travel to Britain where, dressed in fine English clothes, she has audience with the King and Queen.
The transition from the primitive Native American world to the elegant King’s Court is the high point of Malick’s movie. But, it takes eons to get there. Only the most intrepid filmgoers will make it, without nodding off.
The story ends on a downbeat as Pocahontas dies of disease in the Old World. This is after meeting Smith once more, ending her infatuation and solidifying her relationship with Rolfe.
For Malick fans, “The New World” is a must, a companion piece to his 1978 masterpiece, “Days of Heaven.” To the uninitiated, it will likely be a beautiful bore.