Saturday, February 16, 2008

THE RIVER QUEEN - costume epic catatastrophe

THE RIVER QUEEN wants to be a lavish historic adventure. It wants to have the mesmerising visuals, lyrical beautiy and epic scope of a Terrence Mallick flick. It wants to tell us something profound about conflicting loyalties and the search for identity. Director Vincent Ward and DP Alun Bollinger certainly succeed in shooting some wonderful footage of New Zealand, and the production designers certainly envelope the frontier garrisons and interior villages of the nineteenth century in sufficient mist and grime. Even Kiefer Sutherland convinces with a broad Irish accent as a soldier working for the British. He complements a cast rich with talent - not least Stephen Rea as an ex-pat surgeon and Samantha Morton as his daughter Sarah.

THE RIVER QUEEN is fundamentally Sarah's story. She throws off convention as one might take off a coat. She falls for a Maori man and bears him a child, who is then abducted by his grandfather. In love with a Maori, mother to a Maori son, but serving the British despite herself being an oppressed Irishwoman, Sarah must struggle with her own identity and loyalties. Moreover, her son has been raised a Maori and sees no need to return "upstream".

This could have been a great picture, but the movie is incoherent. The editing is jarring, the story meanders and character motivations are unclear. This is particularly true of Sarah. She seems to flit between her Maori lover (Cliff Curtis) and Kiefer Sutherland's Irish captain with little reason.

Presumably someone decided to throw a heavy layer of voice-over onto the movie to give the audience a hope of keeping up. Sadly, the narration doesn't help our understanding but adds to the frustration and irritation. The whole thing is basically a straight-to-DVD write-off. Presumably the only reason it's even getting a UK release it to cash in Samantha Morton's domestic popularity and Kiefer Sutherland's residual popularity for 24. Certainly, the marketing campaign is very misleading. Fans of 24 should be aware that he has only a small role.

THE RIVER QUEEN played Toronto back in 2005. It was released in New Zealand and Australia in 2006 and in Kuwait and Spain in 2007. It is currently on release in the UK.

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