A creative executive once told me that the key to storytelling success is a balance of condensation and distillation: condensation to contextualize and broaden the scope beyond your immediate story, and distillation to dive in deep and explore your characters inside and out.
Terrence Malick’s The New World is a triumphant balance of the two, by telling a story of epic proportions (the first Europeans to land on American shores), and as intimate a love story (between Pocahontas and John Smith) as has ever been filmed. The story glides seamlessly from key historic events, such as the English sailors’ arrival in Virginia or Pocahontas saving John Smith’s life, to the internal monologues and captivating montages Malick is best known for. Narrative story elements are interspersed with introspective aggregate thoughts, drawing us into a foreign time and place through first-person contact.
When John Smith returns to the British fort after living temporarily with a Native tribe, there is bickering among the men on who should lead them next. As they go on, we pivot into Smith’s interior thoughts, as he adjusts from a joyful life with Pocahontas and the Natives back to his reality:
It was a dream. Now I am awake.
We know of course, that the Americas was not truly a “New World,” but the film’s title applies less to the place and more to the characters’ state of being. John Smith a prisoner, freed upon landing in the Americas. Pocahontas fascinated by a totally new way of life, captivated by her first love. John Rolfe, starting anew after losing his wife and child. They all experience new worlds of their own, and follow a similar journey of dreamlike bliss before settling into a less satisfying reality.
It is at times heartbreaking, and very often moving, and the sheer love of everyone involved shines through each frame of The New World. There are no real villains; the interactions between English and Native American are not trivialized or simplified. The plight each character faces is that struggle of condensation and distillation: balancing what is good for the community and collective whole, while satisfying one’s own interests and desires. It is the classic American story, set at the birth of America.