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River Queen: The heart of the matter

NZArtMonthly

River Queen: The heart of the matter
by Ann Poulsen
February 2006

I didn't see this film at the premiere in Wanganui, or at the Rialto launch event in Auckland - I saw it late one afternoon in Henderson at the cineplex and despite the small scattering of an audience, I could hear Maori being spoken as we waited for the lights to go down. This is New Zealand, a land of two languages, two pasts braided together, and River Queen asks us to consider what that might mean.

A film about belonging - not simply where we belong but, more importantly, how we belong - it recounts our history as an anthropology of love: for place, for race, for family, for our beloved. And like Ward's other films, such as the overwhelming In Spring One Plants Alone or the unexpectedly joyful Map of the Human Heart, it is profoundly moving.

Ward enthralls rather than entertains, the story unfolding like a traditional saga - a narrative form characteristic of oral cultures. As with the extraordinary Inuit film Atanarjuat, the use of an ancient genre does not diminish the power of the unique story, its ability to transfix an audience. Rather, this older style of storytelling seems suited to recording memories of the past.

Some writers complain of feeling distanced by this form of narrative and its associated cinematic style - long, lyrical takes, rather than the extreme closeups and shot/reverse shot we now associate with drama. Eisenstein, the Russian filmmaker who pioneered the use of montage, used this technique as ideology, a way of cutting the audience into the film and manipulating their emotions - intentional agitprop.

Ward presents his images as a series of Sarah's memories, recovered and perhaps a little refurbished. This sense is reinforced by the colour grading of the filmstock, which at times almost looks cross-processed. Like all good sagas, it is descended from the truth rather than an exact copy of it; oral cultures enjoy this distance, often using the space created to insert sagacious lessons. Wisdom strives for a form different from ideology.

The cast includes some notable international actors - Stephen Rea, Keifer Sutherland, Samantha Morton. While Rea and Sutherland enliven their moments on screen, Morton fascinates without completely satisfying. Her luminous face is transfixing, a thing of great beauty shining out of the darkness of war; Morton's performance however is guarded, tense - she did not endear me to the naive, impetuous Sarah.

It is the local actors who really stand out. The young Rawiri Pene is a zesty Boy - defiant, independent, guarding a wounded heart. Cliff Curtis is Wiremu, Boy's stepfather and warrior son of the great chief Te Kai Po. A brave and wily pragmatist, Wiremu plays both sides as he tries to protect his people. What is unexpected is the depth of tenderness Curtis imbues his character with - making Wiremu rather than Sarah the emotional pivot of the story.

But the bravura performance is Temuera Morrison as Te Kai Po. Inscrutable, powerful, wise and volatile, this chief inspires awe as well as fear. He is a force of nature, the eye of the storm. He is also magnetic, irresistable. A character conveyed with subtle, finely nuanced acting of such gravitas that the only comparison I can think to make is Brando. Really, Morrison is that good.

And through it all runs the mystical Whanganui River, not belonging to Middle Earth or some other fictitous land, but an enigmatic unfolding of our own country. Seen from the air it shimmers like a mirage; travelling along its surface is to be belittled by the grandeur of nature. The Whanganui is not a backdrop to the main action or attractive scenery but an experience, a revelation.

So, it is an intriguing story beautifully filmed. Even more compelling is that River Queen is our story - our genealogy as a nation and perhaps, for kiwis like me, also our genealogy as a family. This is what the New Zealand Film Commission exists to facilitate, not the garnering of Oscars but the representation of our culture in a way that speaks to us.

As the poet Anne Carson says, " Anthropology is a science of mutual surprise". And the same could be said of love. How can you feel distanced from all that?

Copyright © 2006 Ann Poulsen. All Rights Reserved.


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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