Movie review: “River Queen”

We took out “River Queen” on DVD tonight. It’s a 2005 movie, which was filmed in New Zealand and is set around 1868.

There are lots of spoilers in here, so don’t read any further if you want to go and watch the movie yourself.

Sarah O’Brien, the main protagonist of this movie, is played by the beautiful, delectably curvaceous and strong-willed Samantha Morton who speaks with a lilting Irish accent (although I gather that the actress herself is English, not Irish).

Her father Francis, a soldier and the district surgeon, is played by Stephen Rea. He is one of my fave Irish actors, so I am seriously disappointed that he is only in the movie for about 10 mins, looks dreadful in unkempt beard and dirty clothes most of the time, and has a fiery temper that doesn’t exactly endear me to him. But I remember him in “The Crying Game”, and all is forgiven.

The entire movie is set in New Zealand, with the action moving up and down the Great River (Te Awa Nui), from the main garrison at the mouth of the river, to the frontier garrison further inland, to the furthest inland reaches of the river.

Sarah, her father Francis and her younger sister live at the inland garrison, where she grows up. At the age of 16, Sarah falls in love with a young Maori boy by the name of Tommy Boy, from whom she falls pregnant. Tommy Boy dies shortly after they meet.

At least I think that was the story… I have a couple of gaps in the plot – and that’s not because I dozed off or was eating pizza at the time – I mean, I was eating pizza, but I don’t think that interfered with my hearing… Throughout the entire movie, it was accoustically really hard to understand what people were saying. This may be because they did indeed mumble, or because there was interference from the background noise, or because my ear couldn’t attune to their accents, or perhaps even because my hearing is no longer as sharp as it was in my youth.

Anyhow, Sarah gives birth to an adorable little son, Boy, who means everything to her. A few years later, her father and her sister leave the garrison, although I don’t know why; I think it has something to do with a new commander at the garrison who is hell-bent on wiping out the local Maori population whom he regards as savages (the fact that the Maori warriors are frequently portrayed as bloodthirsty, blood-lusting, huge-muscled hulks probably doesn’t help the image).

There is another soldier at the garrison, Private Doyle, played by Kiefer Sutherland in a kilt and a straggly red beard (which I keep wanting to shave and neaten up), who really likes Sarah. He worked closely together with her father, and thus seems to feel a brotherly obligation to protect her… while perhaps hoping that she will fall for him in return.

At the age of 7, Boy is kidnapped by his Maori grandfather, heavily tattooed Ringu, which throws Sarah’s life into complete turmoil. She ‘goes bush’, and spends years roaming the countryside looking for her missing son… without success. The day she finally finds Ringu, he is shot and dies in her arms, swearing that a river of blood will wipe out the colonisers. Gee, thanks, great timing!!

One day, Wiremu (Cliff Curtis) who happens to be the older (?) brother of Tommy Boy, and thus the uncle of Boy, whom he has adopted as his own son, appears in the garrison and takes Sarah away to heal the rebel chief, Te Kai Po (Temuera Morrison) – a perfect combination of power, masculinity and menace with just a hint (no more) of sensitivity. He is seriously ill with influenza and about to die.

(I had seen both of these actors before, in the horrific 1994 NZ movie, “Once Were Warriors”, which was about domestic violence among a family of urban Maoris who were struggling with alcoholism and poverty and a loss of the old traditions.)

They spend ages travelling up the river, Sarah blindfolded (as in the photo on the DVD cover). Thanks to her healing powers (and probably some divine intervention), Te Kai Po recovers. He is so grateful that he names Sarah ‘Queen’ or ‘Queenie’… presumably as in the title of the movie, River Queen. And Sarah is finally reunited with Boy, her son (who doesn’t quite look like he has aged 7 years). Boy is not interested in returning to the garrison with her – he has found his home in the tribe. She also starts to fall in love with Wiremu, who seems to remind her of Tommy Boy, and wonders whether she could perhaps fit into the life of the village and make this her home.

Unfortunately, the story does not develop into a happy one, where the white woman is integrated into the Maori tribe and adopts their way of life… Sorry, did I spoil it?

Instead, the Chief declares war on the Colonials, and Sarah is caught in the middle. Although she can no longer call the garrison her home (because of the scurvy bastard in charge there), she is also not at home among the tribe, plus her son seems to be angry at her for abandoning her and eager to prove his masculinity by going to war with the big boys.

There are so many battle scenes with flying bullets, exploding gunpowder kegs, blood-soaked bayonets and blown-up bodies that I lost count. Fortunately, the movie is not just about the brutal hand-to-hand fighting (no swashbuckling heroes elegantly swishing the air with their delicate sabres while leaping head-high and flick-flacking across furniture to escape the big bad bloke with the axe, who promptly impales himself on something pointy – but rage-filled, blood-squirting slaughter in the mud and filth).

And yet, there are sooo many moments where the soaring music and harmonising choir-voices lift the story out of this rather barbarous world into a spiritual realm, where the natural elements – water, air, clouds, birds, trees – all seem to carry a message… I’m not quite sure what the message was, exactly, but I think it has to do with the power of nature, and with living in harmony with it… Not sure…

There’s a happy ending of sorts…. If you want to know the details, you know what to do. 🙂


For other movies we’ve watched in February, click on:

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