In the mid 1800s New Zealand, amidst the battles between British soldiers and Maori tribes, the daughter of an Irish army surgeon, Sarah (Samantha Morton) falls in love with a young Maori and falls pregnant. The young Maori dies, and when her child, Boy, is 6 years old, he is kidnapped by his Maori grandfather. After years trying to find him, she finally discovers Boy (Rawiri Pene) in the family of her dead lover's brother, Wiremu (Cliff Curtis), who has switched sides. But Boy has no intention of leaving his tribal home and scorns her, anxious to prove himself in battle. As the British army engages a coalition of Maori tribes, their lives are in danger, caught between the two sides. Sarah has to make a choice, which will change all their lives forever.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
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, so it is a welcome insight, albeit lacking the story clarity we might wish for. Some of the blurring is made worse missed dialogue: the Irish brogue, especially in Keifer Sutherland's often whispered or mumbled delivery, is hard to decipher in the sound mix, as are several other lines.
Allun Bollinger's often breathtaking cinematography should win him a tourism award if not the Oscar - at least for the God's eye view shots and other brief scenes where the camera is actually steady. Too much of it, however, Steadicam, which is not steady at all, and I find this tiring (and a bit irritating) to watch for extended periods. Of the many Maoris who speak English, too many sound a wee bit modern ...
These shortcomings accentuate the film's central weakness, which comes down to a failure of the characters to engage us enough and a story that meanders and stumbles. There is such a cinematic flurry in the opening scenes that we are restless before we get a chance to focus on the key characters and build some sort of rapport. 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. But there isn't enough to make the film deliver its full payload to full satisfaction.
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RIVER QUEEN (M)
CAST: Samantha Morton, Kiefer Sutherland, Cliff Curtis, Temuera Morrison, Anton Lesser, Rawiri Pene, Stephen Rea
PRODUCER: Chris Auty, Don Reynolds
DIRECTOR: Vincent Ward
SCRIPT: Vincent Ward, Toa Fraser
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Alun Bollinger
EDITOR: Ewa J. Lind
MUSIC: Karl Jenkins
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Rick Kofoed
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 6, 2006
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
VIDEO RELEASE: November 8, 2006
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