English Title: River Queen
Country of Origin: New Zealand
Studio: Silverscreen Films/The Film Consortium
Director: Vincent Ward
Producer(s): Chris Auty, Don Reynolds, Tainui Stephens
Screenplay: Toa Fraser, Vincent Ward
Cinematographer: Alun Bollinger
Art Director: Shayne Radford
Editor: Ewa J Lind
Runtime: 114 minutes
Genre: Historical Drama
Starring/Cast: Cliff Curtis, Temuera Morrison, Samantha Morton, Kiefer Sutherland
As the abandoned daughter of a military medical officer, Irish-born Sarah finds herself in the midst of the New Zealand Maori Wars of the 1860s. While still a teenager, she has borne a son to a Maori boy who has since died. Her son is kidnapped at the age of seven by his grandfather, and seven years of searching elapse before Sarah is brought into contact with him again, by which time he has fully identified with his Maori family against the Crown forces. Loyalty is not a simple affair; not only do Maori fight on both sides, but Sarah herself moves between two lives, two potential lovers and two military forces. Ultimately she must choose between them, and in so doing identify who she will be in her adopted land.
After films exploring cross-cultural relationships in other contexts, Vincent Ward returns to his home country in River Queen to explore this theme in its past. Any film by Ward is worthy of notice, and while River Queen promises much, it mostly fails to deliver. Filmed in magnificent locations on the Whanganui River, the grandeur of the landscape is unfortunately never matched by any sense of epic in character or story. Stunning cinematography by Alun Bollinger, and the locations captured by him, are almost enough to redeem the film from its incoherence and lack of emotional engagement, but not quite. There seems to be no way into the character of Sarah for the audience, with Samantha Morton strangely limited in the role.
Stories about trouble on the set have become legendary. Ward was certainly sacked and the direction given to Bollinger at one point, with Ward brought back in for post-production. Some sources blamed Morton. Whatever the case, there is a measure of dislocation about her performance that keeps the viewer at bay, unable to really care about her dilemmas. Other performances are variable. Doyle’s (Keifer Sutherland) breathless Irish accent fails to convince, and the Crown Commander remains a cardboard cut-out. Wiremu (Cliff Curtis), Te Kai Po (Temuera Morrison) and the young Boy (Rawiri Pene), on the other hand, make the best of their material, confusing as it is at times.
Ward seems to fall victim to his historical sources. By attempting to blend a range of real figures from the past – Ann Evans, Titokowaru and Caroline Perrett – Ward loses sight of a coherent narrative and convincing symbolism. In the attempt to include elements from all of these disparate lives, the script overplays its hand. One of the results of this is that the film actually includes several rebirth scenes for Sarah, where it can really only sustain one with any credibility. Immersion in the river, affecting once or even twice, is too often evoked to be able maintain any meaning.
The film is about being torn, and about constructing identity in new and changing circumstances, but Morton’s performance shuts the audience out from feeling this with her. There are also several blatant allusions to The Piano, which serve no explicable purpose. The voiceover narration immediately evokes the narrative style of the earlier film, and in this context, what purpose is served when Wiremu lose his finger?
Too much remains inexplicable in this film. It sets out to explore identity in a deeply- yet unevenly-divided world, and while Sarah makes her choice, it is hard see what contributed to it. Te Kai Po also seems to betray his own forces, yet the reasons for this are not fully explored, either. The setting remains, its significance felt in every shot, and seen around every bend of the magnificent river. Despite failing to live up to its ambitions, River Queen remains intriguing by almost being a brilliant film.