Movie Review: The New World

As a follow-up to Jamestown’s 400th anniversary, Susan and I watched the latest cinematic interpretation of the Jamestown story The New World (2005). In the movie we meet our lead characters John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pochahantas/Matoaka/Rebecca (Q’Orianka Kilcher). Smith wanders sullenly through the tall grasses of the Virginia swamps and laconically avoids conversation with his fellow settlers. You can tell he’s a a true devotee of emo and at times you can almost see the earbuds of his iPod where he listens to an endless shuffle of Thom Yorke. Pochahantas by contrast is a crunchy, hippy girl who dances around the groovy Powhatan village. This extremely well-developed 10-year old and the English pedophile are of course destined for star-crossed love.

Not that they put it that way, but despite claiming to base the film on the latest historical research and even giving a nod to Bill Kelso in the credits, the filmmakers chose to put the mythical romance of Captain Smith and Pochahantas at the center of the story. Like the story of Jesus and Mary Magdelene as lovers the Smith/Pochantas tale at one time may have been an interesting “what if?” but by now is trite and I wonder why authors, artists, and filmmakers keep dipping back into that dry well. Especially since the true story is much more interesting.

Apart from historical innacuracy, weird editing is the bane of this film. Like a music video the movie cuts quickly from image to image, rarely allowing time for a coherent scene. Look Pochantas is patting John Smith’s cheek! Now she’s fifty feet away gesturing to the gods in the sky! Now there’s Chief Powhatan looking grumpy!

Meanwhile back in the fort, a number of extras from Monty Python and David Lynch films are standing around not doing much. A real settlement would require constant tree felling, building, hunting, cooking, preparing goods for the winter, but at this Jamestown there is only room for malaise. They do shoot each other every once in a while for no particular reason, and act creepy to keep things interesting.
Not that it’s all bad. It’s better than the Disney film or the dramatic production “Journey of Destiny.” The cinematography is beautiful, capturing the lush wilderness of Virginia and the courtly world of England equally well. In fact, like the train wreck of Gangs of New York the filmmakers paid great attention to detail in getting the costumes, props and sets to match exacting historical detail. They just didn’t bother to do that with the plot.

So if you like tragic romances, watch this film with the caveat that it is not a true story. If you like history, watch it for the sets and costumes. If you’re annoyed by failure to adhere to a simple historical narrative, don’t watch it all.