The New World: Movie Review

The New World tells the somewhat familiar story of Pocahontas, John Smith, and the 17th century founding of the Jamestown colony. It’s the same story told by the Disney musical movie Pocahontas, which is in many ways the antithesis of this film. Where Pocahontas was exuberant and fun, The New World is ponderous and artsy. In Pocahontas, the trees speak on occasion, but in The New World even the people barely speak. Many of the scenes were visual and subtle and much of the script was poetic (borderline pretentious) character narration. It’s definitely not the historical romance epic that I had expected. I hate to admit to being low-brow, but while I could see how audiences might appreciate its artistry (and positive reviews seem to indicate that many critics do), much of that was lost on me.

A quick recap: English explorers, including Capt. John Smith (played by Colin Farrell), arrive in the area that would become Virginia and decide to found a colony there. In the process, they meet the native people (who they call “naturals”), including the chief’s daughter Pocahontas. After she saves him from execution, Smith and Pocahontas gradually form a bond and fall in love; the Jamestown colony barely survives starvation and backstabbing, and Pocahontas is brought to England to meet the king and queen. Unfortunately, recapping the plot is a disservice to prospective viewers because this is not a plot-oriented movie. Most scenes seem to be capturing mood, whether it’s scenes of “earthy” natives doing their thing, glances and gestures between Smith and Pocahontas conveying unspoken feelings, or tense confrontation between native warriors and English colonists. Watching the movie was also like watching a broken DVD that skipped itself forward. It was often unclear what events led to what situations. When one of the ships returned, there wasn’t a buildup and acknowledgment that “OK, now they’ve arrived”. Instead, suddenly the scene cut and we saw the people unloading cargo with the ship anchored offshore. The rest was simple deduction, but it still seemed disjointed and left me with many questions: Why did that happen? What caused that? Did I miss something? Perhaps those are not important for this kind of mood piece.
Admittedly, the style of this film is quite distinctive. Unfortunately, I was looking for more of a conventional history lesson with some hollywood splash thrown in. Instead, The New World is more like director Terrence Malick saying, “You want a history lesson? I’ll give you one, but it’s all going to be done through interpretive dance and impressionist paintings.” Uh oh. Where did I put those Coles Notes? (2.5 out of 5)


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