River Queen


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Vincent Ward's River Queen may be a joint British/New Zealand production, made with very close co-operation between Ward's crew and the different Maori tribes from around the Whanganui River where principal photography took place - but it is set during the New Zealand land wars of the mid-19th Century, when relations between the indigenous populations and the white settlers (or Pakeha) were far less cordial. That the film exists at all in its present collaborative form is a sign, as clear as a tattoo etched prominently on the face, of how rapidly times have changed between New Zealand's colonial beginnings and the current state of the nation.

New Zealand, 1868. A young Irish woman named Sarah (Samantha Morton) lives at a riverside frontier garrison with her father (Stephen Rea), who is a surgeon for the English army. Sarah's half-breed son Boy (David Rawiri Pene), born shortly after his Maori father succumbed to influenza, is abducted by his native grandfather (Wi Kuki Kaa), in an act of vengeance for the building of a road on sacred ground. Sarah embarks on a search for her missing son, only to find herself caught between conflicting allegiances - to her father's vicious commander Baine (Anton Lesser) and the local Maori chief Te Kai Po (Temuera Morrison), to her best friend the Irish mercenary Doyle (Kiefer Sutherland) and to her new local lover Wiremu (Cliff Curtis), and to her father's home in Ireland, and her son's on new soil.

With its host of conflicted characters all struggling to negotiate shifting boundaries (both territorial and cultural) on a wild historical frontier, River Queen is only the latest in a long snaking line of films - from John Ford's The Searchers to Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves, from Terence Malick's The New World to Ron Howard's The Missing, from Roland Joffé's The Mission to Rolf de Heer's The Tracker, and from Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai (early drafts of which Ward helped prepare) to Ward's own Map Of The Human Heart - that dramatise the uneasy emergence of a new nation's identity.

Ward's film is also, of course, a sweeping adventure romance, full of dramatic confrontations, epic battles, and all manner of tricky moral dilemmas, as Sarah and her comrades from either side attempt to work out what they really stand for, and what they are willing to sacrifice. Unlike most films of its genre, however, River Queen is suffused with a disorienting lyrical quality, created by Alun Bollinger's lush cinematography, a persistent focus on water, and some very unconventional editing techniques. Just as a dream which Chief Te Kai Po shares with Sarah forms the basis of his entire subsequent military strategy, the film itself takes on the qualities of a disjointed vision, sometimes languid, sometimes violent, but always seeming to be only half-glimpsed on the threshold of sleep. It is without doubt a hauntingly beautiful piece of cinema, and not just for its extraordinary landscapes.

Unfortunately the effect is undone to a degree by Sarah's ever-present, overwrought voice-over. River Queen offers up many ironies that flow from its characters' mixed loyalties, but any sense of subtlety immediately evaporates once Sarah has supplied her lengthy, largely unnecessary exegesis on them. It is as though Ward is unwilling to let audiences chart his film's eccentric course for themselves - but the result comes over as over-obvious and heavy-handed. Better to have left his river of hallucinatory images to take the viewer wherever it would.

Reviewed on: 06 Oct 2006
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A young Irish woman searches for her kidnapped half-Maori son.
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Director: Vincent Ward

Writer: Vincent Ward and Toa Fraser, based on a story by Vincent Ward

Starring: Samantha Morton, Kiefer Sutherland, Cliff Curtis, Temuera Morrison, Anton Lesser, David Rawiri Pene, Stephen Rea, Wi Kuki Kaa, Mark Ruka

Year: 2005

Runtime: 114 minutes

Country: New Zealand, UK


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