River Queen story   13 Apr 2007

Stephen Jewell

If New Zealand has an Apocalypse Now - a movie like Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War epic filmed in a hostile, remote location, which ends up in catastrophic disaster - it would have to be Vincent Ward's River Queen.

Much was promised by the Greytown-born director's fifth film - his first to be shot back home since his 1988 sophomore effort The Navigator - but Ward was forced to peer into his own heart of darkness after everything that could go wrong went wrong.

Despite receiving an official blessing from local iwi, a splinter group placed an advertisement in a Taranaki newspaper, cursing the production.

It seemed to have done the trick: Cliff Curtis, who plays Wiremu, crashed his car into a house and there were complaints from extras that they were paid or fed.

But most of the trouble centred around Nottingham-born lead actress Samantha Morton (Morvern Callar, Minority Report), who plays Sarah O'Brien, a young Irish immigrant to 1860s New Zealand who becomes embroiled in a turbulent tug of love over her half-Maori son, the simply-named Boy (Rawene Pene) with his father's tribe.

Ward - who as his 1984 debut Vigil indicates, is no stranger to hostile, wind and rain-swept environments - made the mistake of filming River Queen on the Whanganui River in Taranaki at the height of a particularly stormy winter.

Unfortunately, Morton is said to have not taken kindly to the harsh conditions - she apparently refused to use the on-site Portaloos, necessitating a five kilometre round-trip to her trailer every time she was caught short - and eventually fell sick, forcing the production to be postponed for six weeks.

The equally difficult and uncompromising actor and director also reportedly frequently clashed on set and when filming eventually resumed, Ward was sacked by the film's insurers and replaced by cinematographer Alun Bollinger - allegedly at Morton's behest - only to be reinstated during post-production.

River Queen was eventually released in New Zealand in early 2006 and while the finished version is obviously not the spectacular opus that Ward originally envisioned, it is not half as bad as some of the proverbially - mixed - i.e. bad - reviews suggest.

In truth, not every review was negative: Writing in the Dominion Post and on www.lumiere.net.nz, Alexander Bisley calls River Queen - more ambitious and vital than Utu - deeply thought (out) and charged, it teaches and warns, as well as entertains.

But while it may not be in the same class of Geoff Murphy's iconic 1983 film, River Queen is nevertheless engaging if you can overcome its overly sombre tone, which is not helped by Bollinger's overly gloomy cinematography.

And apart from Morton - who is too aloof to endear herself to viewers - there are some excellent performances, particularly Temuera Morrison as moody chief Te Kai Po and the late Wi Kuki Kaa - in his last role - as Boy's grandfather.

Despite its apparent bad karma, River Queen topped the New Zealand Box Office in its first week or release. It went on to enjoy a respectable run in cinemas and healthy DVD sales and it definitely deserves its albeit belated international release.

And while may go down in New Zealand cinematic history for al the wrong reasons, it is still an important part of the Kiwi film canon, which all New Zealanders at least should see.

From NZ Inspired Magazine April 2007

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