2000s, Drama, Foreign, New Zealand cinema

River Queen (2005)


Director: Vincent Ward

By Roderick Heath

Vincent Ward came to prominence in the early 1990s between the pioneering generation of Kiwi directors that shook the world—Jane Campion with An Angel at My Table and The Piano, Lee Tamahori with Once Were Warriors, and Peter Jackson with Brain Dead and Heavenly Creatures. His The Navigator (1988) laid down a template Ward has followed ever since—an interest in culture clashes wedded to a vivid, hallucinogenic creativity fatally mixed with that muddled, breathless sense of form that too often in contemporary film culture, is mistaken for artistry. Ward’s the kind of director—his subsequent works include Map of the Human Heart (1993) and What Dreams May Come (1998)—who at his best is dazzling and original and at his worst is a total wanker; both extremes will be reached many times in the course of one film. River Queen is a movie of unusual ambition, a kind of antipodean mating of The Searchers with The Last of the Mohicans and dashes of Heart of Darkness, Greystoke, and A Man Called Horse. It’s also a showpiece for a lot of what is wrong with modern moviemaking. How to screw up telling a fairly simple story is a rare kind of art itself.

Sarah O’Brien (Samantha Morton) and her doctor father Francis (Stephen Rea) settle upriver in frontier New Zealand, as she informs us in the compulsory pseudo-poetic voiceover with Irish lilt. She has an affair with a Maori boy, the son of a chief, and has his son. Her father is predictably outraged, but helps her give birth to the child. The father later dies in…well, I’m not sure. The child, known only as Boy (I wonder how long it took to think that one up), grows into a playful tyke who accidentally slashes his knee open playing hide-and-seek with his mother. She stitches it up with the skills she’s learnt from her father, who is making himself busy clearing land with fellow Irish immigrant Doyle (Keifer Sutherland). The land includes a sacred site, which riles local chieftain Rangi (Wi Kuki Kaa), who is, by the by, Boy’s grandfather. Boy is snatched away by his tribe, and whilst Francis abandons all hope of making a home on the frontier, Sarah remains behind. Working as a medic, she spends years—well, it’s supposed to be years, but Sarah doesn’t seem to grow older, and the local political situation doesn’t seem to alter either—looking for Boy.

When she finally finds Rangi, the grizzled old chieftain is promptly shot by the brutal English military commander of the district, Baine (Anton Lesser). This sparks full-scale war, marshalled by Rangi’s chosen successor Te Kai Po (Temuera Morrison), a fiery, brilliant war chief who effortlessly runs rings around Baine, such a stock villain it’s a wonder he doesn’t have a moustache to twirl. In the war, Maori family members often battle each other because some are fighting for the British on the promise of keeping their land and independence or just because they know which way the future’s going. Wiremu (Cliff Curtis), the forgotten brother of Sarah’s long-dead lover, now works as a scout, but seems to be reconsidering his allegiances. He asks Sarah to come up river with him to treat Te Kai Po for an illness that’s killing him. She does, hoping to learn where Boy is.

In fact, Boy, now an adolescent (Rawiri Pene), is one of her escorts on the long trip; though Sarah is blindfolded on the journey, she identifies her son by feeling the scar on his leg. Boy is hardly unhappy; indeed he’s a proudly budding warrior. Sarah finds that Te Kai Po is ill with influenza, and coaxes him through his fever. She soon realises she’s accomplished little other than give Te Kai Po another shot at fomenting war. He provokes Baine into battle by sending him a letter in which he claims to have turned cannibal. Baine’s subsequent attack is batted off by clever tactics. In the battle, Doyle is shot after sparing the life of Boy, and Wiremu’s son is killed. Sarah takes Doyle back to British territory to tend to him, but he dies. Sarah and Wiremu get it on.

Films like River Queen amuse me in that they try to explore the past through contemporary mores: a wet liberal-feminist fantasy where the pretty wild child/nature girl/doctor, who likes the odd hot knee-trembler with whichever black stud’s close at hand, hangs out with knowing/wise/noble/canny/tough natives whilst the nasty limeys rape/burn/pillage/shoot/torture. I suppose Dances with Wolves is the paragon of this genre, which seeks to deliver the same charge we get out of the epic narratives of Westerns and pioneer sagas whilst provoking historical guilt and promoting racial brotherhood and reconciliation. It’s not a new idea—the idea of cultures meeting in individuals and forging a new one has been around in this genre since James Fenimore Cooper. Even Cimarron presents its hero Yancey Cravat as passionate for Native American rights (whilst still taking gleeful part in stealing their land).

Such reversals on the myths of colonialism and imperialism are cute and to a degree necessary, but perpetuate a different kind of falsity that obscures the tangled realities of ethnic identity, historical impetus, and social development. One may criticise the racism of The Searchers, but in many ways The Searchers is a more complex and difficult story to create than a film like River Queen, not in the least because it is flatly honest about the nature of racism and frontier conflict, and forces the viewer to identify with its jerk of a protagonist rather than giving us PC fantasies for heroes. It’s hard to take Ward’s historical conscientiousness seriously when he, like too many filmmakers, uses it as an excuse to indulge in visual pseudo-mysticism—Te Kai Po and Sarah share a prophetic dream about the future—he wouldn’t get away with if, say, he was making a film about insurance salesmen. He also presents us with a Maori village that looks like the Ewok city of Return of the Jedi or Galadriel’s home in The Lord of the Rings. This is the depth of Ward’s anthropology—aboriginals are cooler because they give him an excuse to film the acid trips he’s had. Whilst his style chases Terence Malick, the actual level of Ward’s screenplay is Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Ward further cops out by presenting us with such cleanly disparate characters as Sarah and Doyle, both of whom fit nicely into contemporary penchant for suffering Irish chic (the Irish now being a kind of all-purpose picked-on white tribe), contrasted with Baine, an English soldier you can easily imagine meeting up with Col. Tarlton from The Patriot, sitting about the manor drinking tea, whipping naked servant boys, and happily reminiscing about all those wogs they killed. Sarah will eventually commit to the Maori side by getting Boy to tattoo her face with a tribal mark—cool as! I can hear my hippie mates declaring—and a happy ending shows her shacked up with Boy and Wiremu, teaching yoga, and running her own organic produce outlet. Or something like that.

Where River Queen is at its most interesting and revealing is in the conflicts of emotion and loyalty in the Maori nations, especially Wiremu, who eventually rejoins his own tribe but later finds himself bargaining with his own cousins, who fight for the British. The core battle scene is well done, a thunderous encounter of blood, mood, forest, and confusion in which Boy mischievously fools the soldiers by crying out his own accented orders, and then runs to avoid a Maori scalping. Cliff Curtis imbues Wiremu with charm and intelligence (it’s also amusing, if you know Once Were Warriors, to see him and Morrison playing allies), but Ward’s so eager to present them as civilised and upright that Wiremu and Te Kai Po would be at home teaching at the University of Auckland, or maybe Sandhurst, considering how much better soldiers they are than Baine. Baine wins the war, but only because Te Kai Po obeys the dream and ruins his own alliance of tribes by screwing another chief’s wife, thus avoiding the prophesised river of blood.

Of contemporary films, River Queen consistently reminded me of Malick’s efforts with The New World (2005), but it possesses none of Malick’s poise or intellectual clarity about what he’s trying to describe. River Queen captures interest, chiefly through the almost surreal vividness of Ward’s sense of time and place. His art direction and production teams have laboured with effort and love to recreate a world of scraggly, hard-pressed civilisation clawing for existence in a virtual jungle world. In addition to his asinine sense of historical narrative, Ward’s filmmaking is of a variety all too common in today’s directors, in emphasising visual texture over intellectual and narrative clarity. The first 20 minutes of the film are almost a lesson in how not to put a film together, and though the film settles down, it still rushes its story points, garbles potential climaxes and epiphanies, and ends with a superfluous double-bluff. This carelessness over concept and form is endemic and pitiful. Possibly it’s not entirely Ward’s fault. The production was troubled, Ward and Morton battled constantly, and eventually he was taken off the project, the film finished by the cinematographer Alun Bollinger, whose photography is the film’s chief asset. With these awfully pretty pictures, Ward does weave a dynamic tapestry that doesn’t exactly achieve a cinematic tone poem, but does make it watchable through to the end.