River Queen Review

Even by his own standards, with only five films in over twenty years, River Queen was a troubled production for filmmaker Vincent Ward. Five years in development, seven years since his previous film, What Dreams May Come, Ward’s return to his roots to make a film about the nineteenth century British settlement of New Zealand and their war with the Maori natives was beset with difficulties from the outset. With injuries and illness setting an expensive production back, reported difficulties with lead actor Samantha Morton on the set and even a Maori curse being placed on the filmmakers, River Queen was running seriously over-budget. To satisfy the insurers, Vincent Ward was fired and replaced by director of photography Alun Bollinger, who finished the filming. Ward was however brought back to edit the film and shoot additional scenes, and it is his name that is given sole credit for what appears on the screen. Unquestionably then River Queen bears all the hallmarks of Vincent Ward’s extraordinary visionary filmmaking style and themes, but perhaps because of those commercial pressures, the thin frame of the adventure story that supports the violent and turbulent historical events of the period fails to live up to the film’s ambitions.

The battles and the nature of the aggression between the British army and the indigenous Maoris of New Zealand’s North Island as depicted in the film during the 1860s is certainly shocking and portrayed by the filmmakers with no doubt a certain amount of authenticity for the horrors enacted. It is not just the British colonists who are shown as cruel and ruthless as they clear settlements, indiscriminately murdering women and children, burning down villages and desecrating holy burial grounds. The Maoris are also shown as being just as cold-blooded in response, torturing prisoners and using their bodies for shooting practice. Showing many Maoris also joining the British army and fight against their own people, River Queen at least avoids making simplistic statements of right and wrong in what is clearly a far more complex situation where two very different cultures are in direct opposition.

This divide between cultures and the upheaval of beliefs and ancient ways of living would appear to be Vincent Ward’s angle on the film, and it’s a familiar one from many of his previous films – from Toss’ journey to adulthood in Vigil, the journey of a group of villagers from a Medieval settlement to modern day New Zealand in The Navigator, Avik the half-breed Eskimo’s journey from the Arctic to the battlefields of WWII in Map Of The Human Heart, and even in Robin’s William’s character crossing the boundaries between the living and the dead in What Dreams May Come. In River Queen it is Sarah O’Brien (Samantha Morton), the daughter of an Irish surgeon working for the British army, who is the linking character between the two disparate worlds battling for dominance in New Zealand. Her son, Boy, the half-breed product of a liaison with a Maori boy, has been taken away by his grandfather Old Rangi in retaliation for the desecration of a burial site by her father (Stephen Rea) and Scottish soldier Doyle (Kiefer Sutherland). Distraught, Sarah searches upriver for the boy, deep into territory where no white man will venture, but to no avail. Seven years after his abduction however, when Te Kai Po, the Chief of a Maori tribe falls victim to the white-man’s “coughing sickness” – a flu the Maori people have no immune system to combat - Sarah goes to his aid on the promise of Wiremu (Cliff Curtis), a Maori scout for the British who has become disillusioned with their actions against his people, that he will lead her to her boy.

Like the journeys of the characters in previous Vincent Ward films, Sarah’s voyage upriver is more than just a physical one; it is a spiritual journey, presaged by dreams and visions and one that involves a certain sacrificial spilling of blood. More than those previous films, whose epic qualities were not exactly negligible, the nature of all those elements here is grander, deeper and perhaps even more overblown – a consequence perhaps of personal nature of the project, its setting in Ward’s home country and his determination to see it through its well-documented production difficulties. Visually, the film is every bit as grand and lyrical as you might expect from the director, Sarah’s narration adding to its detached dream-like quality, and this is balanced to some degree by the gritty, explicit violence of the running battles - but the disparate elements never seem to coalesce. It’s like trying to bring together The Piano with Last of the Mohicans, and neither the personal family drama nor the historical adventure have enough depth here. Whether it for commercial considerations or just a miscalculation on the part of the director as to the ability of these elements to support each other, the resolution consequently doesn’t ring true. Ward’s mystical, visionary characters usually bridge a gap between the harsh reality of the world and a spiritual inner life, but succeeding neither as a historical document nor as a flight of fantasy, they, like River Queen, languish this time in some kind of limbo.

River Queen is released in Australia by 20th Century Fox. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 4 only. The DVD can be purchased from EzyDVD.

Filmed by Alun Bollinger, River Queen often has the richness of colour saturation and fineness of grain – emphasised through the use of telephoto lenses – of his work with Vincent Ward on Vigil, heightening and pushing the tones to amplify the nature of the settings and the emotions. It’s transferred marvellously here, highly contrasted, clear, sharp and detailed, without a flaw on the print. There are some macro-blocking elements visible, a faint level of edge enhancement and possibly dot crawl, but you’d be hard pushed to notice any of this in most scenes during normal playback. Interiors are slightly murky, but exteriors - which constitute the larger part of the film – are fine and often quite impressive in this visually striking film.

There is only one audio track, the original Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. It’s generally fine and strong, the battle scenes in particular being explosive, but the centre channel dialogue is often rather flat, dull and almost muffled. When combined with the thick Irish accents and Kiefer Sutherland’s ridiculous Scottish lilt, it can often be very difficult to understand. Hard of hearing titles are however provided and I found myself having to rely to them on a regular basis. The music score is also very strong in the mix, the mawkish Enya-like variations on ‘Danny Boy’ perhaps even being rather overbearing.

Optional English captions are provided for all English dialogue in the film. The translation of Maori dialogue is via fixed subtitles, burnt onto the print.

The cover advertises a Trailer for the film, but there were no extras at all to be found on the DVD.

Clearly a personal film by Vincent Ward, bringing him back to New Zealand and shooting again with director of photography Alun Bollinger, River Queen shows that the familiar elements that make up all the director’s films seem to have their roots in New Zealand’s turbulent history and the treatment of the Maori population by the British colonists depicted here. You would expect the film then to be the culmination of Vincent Ward’s career, but for whatever reason, the various elements just don’t come together as they should, with neither the historical drama nor the personal drama achieving the kind of coherence or the emotional punch we would normally expect from the director. Continuing its long, difficult road to the screen, the film should finally get a UK theatrical release in May this year. Although the Australian DVD release presents the film in a fine transfer, it may be better waiting to see River Queen on the big screen where its qualities can be better appreciated, and waiting for a DVD release with rather more in the way of extra features.

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