The Double Life of Pocahontas
by jean Fritz
"The New World"
This is the story of Pocahontas--the name of a real person whose true identity and character has been obscured by the tangle of time, a name with the magic of legend. Writer-director Terrence Malick's film about this mythical figure and how she plays a central role in the earliest colonization of America breathes life into her mystery while preserving the fascination and the magic. This is a tone poem of a movie.
The mood is established in the first few minutes. Following a sustained shot of water over a paeon to the natural world by a soft-voiced narrator, and the titles, we see several modest sized wooden sailing ships laying at anchor in a harbor. It's an unintimidating fleet to familiar eyes, but electrifying in its alien nature and sudden appearance to the eyes on land that have never witnessed such an apparition. It is April, 1607, a clear, spring day.
The place is Jamestown, Virginia, and it's occupied by a tribe of natives that we now call Indians and which Malick is careful not to, preferring the term, "naturals." In terms of filmmaking, it's an inspired moment. After all the movie landings on alien shores by pirates, navies and seamen of all description, you'd think we'd seen it all before. But, again, Malick invests it with a uniqueness, a sense of actuality and a tension that's wholly appropriate. Yes, this is how an initial intersection between two worlds and cultures might have taken place.
In a cell below decks on one of the ships, a prisoner's excitement builds as he anticipates the possibility of a change in his fortunes. It is the rebellious Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), as handsome a chap as might come from a European country. Black haired, bearded, tough looking, tense, wary.
As small boats are lowered the sailors eye the shoreline with trepidation and concentrated caution. We see the shoreline from their perspective, then we switch and see them from the forest. A native appears in the foreground, then another. A community appears. Excitement and anticipation builds among these semi clad residents of the land. The tension of curiosity is multiplied by the musical theme that's been growing out of the organ pipes like blood pressure in your veins. It grows to a resounding level and then... all is quiet. Magisterial. Forest sounds. Lapping waves. Birdsong. And the costumed men of the old world set foot on unknown ground.
The approaches are cautious, but the first steps are taken. The cat is out of the bag, the commitment made. These men haven't come this far to hightail it out of there anytime soon. In fact, they've come 3,000 miles on a royal charter from England to establish a cultural, religious and economic foothold in the New World. As they are known as the "Virginia Company," the land, to the English speaking world, will be called henceforth, Virginia.
These diverse people circle one another, then mix, study, sniff, touch. The men get sidelong glances from young native women. Smith, especially, inspires the curiosity of a particular one, a very fetching one, of dark hair and venturesome personality. A man knows when he's become the object of interest to a beautiful girl.
But, Smith has a debt to pay, and the scene jumps to him with a rope around his neck, surrounded by the men of the flotilla. The bad boy has been insubordinate and Captain Edward Wingfield (David Thewlis) is only too glad to carry out the hanging order of his commander, Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer). The captain demurs. His errant sailer is too valuable to waste. Plus, killing him here would send a terrible message to the people of the land. He orders the prisoner released, with a warning. No more mutinous tongue.
We follow the freed soldier of fortune as he wanders the high grass in the Virginia fields. And, then, he notices that he's not alone. That alluring native girl stares at him from a distance. She is young, lovely, dark skinned, athletically proportioned, exotically sensual. Smith doesn't know it yet, but this is a princess of the tribe. Her confidence and charisma nearly gives it away.
The explorers have come to reach an understanding with the natives so that business can be established. The leaders meet, Captain Newport at the head of his forces, and lower level native leaders on the other side, Opechancanough (Wes Studi), for one. In the dialogue, the English sailors learn that the main tribe is several miles upriver and the issue of trade must be approved by Powhatan (August Schellenberg), the tribal ruler. Newport assigns Smith to venture up for the pow wow. He goes, is taken roughly into the native camp and brought before the big chief, who recognizes the dangers that unknown arrivals could mean. He gives the order to kill the stranger, but the girl from the field intervenes. "Spare him," she implores. Powhatan listens. She is, after all, his favorite daughter. He's content, for now, to wait for the newcomers to leave his land.
She's a teenage woman like no other in the tribe. Teasing, willful, fearless and impetuous, she's known among her people as "playful one" or in the tribal tongue, Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher). She enjoys a strong bond with her beloved brother, but has not yet been attracted to a tribal warrior as a mate. She's never had eyes for any man. Until now. The love play with the one she's chosen begins with her learning English, the word for "sun," the word for "lips."
This becomes a great romance marked by powerful, sensual passion that threatens the
Captain Smith is commissioned by the king to lead an exploration, which he sees as a way out of a precarious situation. He accepts and heads out to parts unknown with the instruction to one of the remaining men to wait two months, then tell Pocahontas that he's been killed.
Still grieving some years after hearing it, a nobleman (Christian Bale) is attracted by her studious self-discipline, her aloofness, her look. He slowly, undemandingly woos her. Ultimately, she marries him, is trained in the ways of an English lady, becomes widely known throughout Europe, and is invited to the royal court for an audience with the king and queen of England where she "knocks 'em dead" with her poise and bearing. That part of her story is from the historical record.
With little contemporary writing describing the events in the New World, the fuller picture is a creative mix of history and myth. Malick, in collaboration with editor Richard Chew ("I Am Sam"), jump cuts within the constraints of a scene, switching viewpoints, moving his moments along or lingering for emphasis and absorption. James Horner's score is an exceptional element in Malick's design to expose the harsh and tender drama of personalities and the natural setting at a level of spiritual reverence. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ("Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events") adds his exceptional artistry to the visual poetry of the fable. As Malick builds a portrait that contains insight as much as credibility, he drains the mood of every scene in an interpretation of historical probabilities, demonstrating the tragedy of misunderstanding, miscalculation, and intolerance while holding us captive in an extraordinary tale.
Colin Farrell's great looks, boundless energy and screen magnetism makes the central relationship credible, if unique, shedding light on his character's taboo passion for a girl--a role that's a far better fit for him than his Alexander. Bale, as the man who replaces him in the end, discharges his part with tact and fine taste. Malick's entire ensemble shows excellence. But if awards are being handed out, it's for 15-year old Kilcher to claim. For her debut role she brings exquisite spirit and a riveting presence to her character.
Terrence Malick ("Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line") joins worlds old and new by combining harsh realities of human nature with an almost mystical passion that bridges a cultural divide. His rendering of the colonization of the Americas, if somewhat overlong at 2 1/2 hours, is a well thought out, convincing evocation.