An ambitious film from the talented, serious-minded Vincent Ward, River Queen takes us into the magnificent heart of New Zealand, both geographically and spiritually.
River Queen, New Zealand/UK, 2005
Director: Vincent Ward
Producer: Chris Auty, Don Reynolds
Co-producer: Tainui Stephens
Executive producers: Geoff Dixon, Mark Hotchin, Neil Peplow, James D. Stern, Eric Watson
Screenplay: Vincent Ward, Toa Fraser, Kely Lyons
Cinematography: Alun Bollinger
Editor: Ewa J. Lind
Original music: Karl Jenkins
Production design: Rick Kofoed
Art direction: Shayne Radford
Costumes: Barbara Darragh
Casting: Celestia Fox, Diana Rowan
With: Samantha Morton (Sarah O’Brien), Kiefer Sutherland (Doyle), Cliff Curtis (Wiremu), Temuera Morrison (Te Kai Poi), Anton Lesser (Baine), Rawiri Pene (Boy), Stephen Rea (Francis), Wi Kuki Kaa (Old Rangi)
35mm, 113 minutes, M-Contains violence
New Zealand, 1868 – a country in the midst of a war between British settlers and the Maori tribes resisting the colonization of their lands. At the furthest outpost, a young Irish woman's life is torn apart when her son is taken from her and brought up river by his Maori Grandfather. Unsure whether or not he is even alive she continues her search for seven long years... Caught between two sides, River Queen tells the story of a woman's struggle to choose sides and her journey to win back her missing son.
“’It was the silence of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intent.’ Vincent Ward uncannily invokes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in his frequently brilliant River Queen. There’s a magisterial aerial shot of the winding Whanganui River, establishing the potent sense of place, as Irish settler Sarah heads up-river to find her kidnapped boy. With shades of Huckleberry Finn and Apocalypse Now, this 1860s journey, set as the last Maori bastions resist British colonization, plumbs the nation’s soul. Though it includes some shameful colonial behaviour and attitudes in which some people still indulge, thankfully River Queen doesn’t succumb to black armband or illusory golden age rhetoric, illuminating our complex past with appropriate shades of grey. River Queen, more ambitious and vital than Geoff Murphy’s Utu, takes the creative indemnity of ‘fiction’, but is essentially based on real people’s stories. Temuera Morrison portrays Te Kai Po – think legendary warrior Chief Riwha Titokowaru – with his scorching ‘I have tasted white flesh, I shall not die’ challenge to his British Army nemesis. Like Morrision, Cliff Curtis blazes charisma as Wiremu, who fights for both sides. Ngati’s wonderful Wi Kuki Kaa is the grandfather who kidnaps his mokopuna. Ward deftly avoids the condescending, jarring pitfalls of well-intentioned but mutton-headed works like Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai. The fog of war in the new world, literal and metaphorical, is captured by Ward and his superb cinematographer Alun Bollinger. Bollinger’s brooding images – leisurely paced but gripping – utilise a multi-hued, beautiful palette of green, peppered with blood-red. There are some inventively filmed, invigorating haka. Think Kapa o Pango, but with a battle for your land and way of life, rather than a rugby game, at stake. The Kiwi versus Iwi Rumbles in the Jungle are rugged and visceral. The film is piercing, contemporary analysis of Conrad. Deeply thought and charged, it teaches and warns, as entertains. River Queen respectfully, powerfully understands and conveys the Maori world and Maori concepts; man – chief Te Kai Po’s, the Whanganui River’s – and Maori spirituality… A second viewing swayed a few initial doubts. Like Whale Rider and Rabbit-Proof Fence, River Queen convinces that you don’t have to be indigenous to tell indigenous stories. Ward, who lived for 18 months as the sole Pakeha in a remote Maori community in the Ureweras, deserves a lot of mana. This is his history, this is my history, this is your history – every New Zealander should see River Queen.” — Alexander Bisley, Dominion Post, 21 January 2006
“An ambitious film from the talented, serious-minded Vincent Ward, River Queen takes us into the magnificent heart of New Zealand, both geographically and spiritually. Set in the turbulent decade from 1854, it's a layered story of motherly love, tested through the savage battles for control of the land between a colonial army and the Maori tribes. It's a part of New Zealand history that doesn't often get much attention internationally, not even here in the neighbourhood [Australia]... Allun Bollinger's often breathtaking cinematography should win him a tourism award if not the Oscar ... Samantha Morton has to carry the film's emotional load, and she excels at evoking empathy for a woman caught in turbulence. Fine work, too from Cliff Curtis as a conflicted, side switching Maori, and from young Rawiri Pene as Boy, who forces his mother to re-evaluate her world.” — Andrew L. Urban, Urbancinefile
Screenings: River Queen screened on 26 March 2008 as part of the Big Sky: Empty Land series; and on 27 June 2007 as part of the Arts Foundation Laureates season honouring the work of Laureate Alun Bollinger.