River Queen is the tale of a woman caught between two cultures in the Maori Wars of 1860s New Zealand. It is a very effective portrayal of the multiple tragedies of war, and despite problems with pacing and plot, it’s impossible not to be affected by this film, which is visually quite impressive.
I have a lot of respect for director Vincent Ward. Yet he’s made a surprisingly small number of films over the past 20 years; they can be counted on one hand: Vigil, Navigator, Map of the Human Heart, What Dreams May Come, and now River Queen. The common strand through all of them is vision: the scope of the films are all large, and the films are visually impressive: they absolutely fill the screen.
All of them rather different from each other – and flawed, for the most part. In all this, Ward is like a more austere version of Terry Gilliam. Like Gilliam, Ward expresses a vision that is often too grand for his abilities; tales from the set are often rather tragic in the extent of their calamities. In this case, Ward was even fired from his own film – before being rehired. Also like Gilliam, you sometimes feel like shaking him, telling him to reduce his vision to something manageable – for both himself and the audience.
Having said that, River Queen is definitely not the disaster that some love to say it is. The vision is sweeping; the intention is epic. The cinematography, the look, is always stunning, and that’s something for which we can rely on Ward.
There are strong parallels with both Lord Of The Rings and The Piano: all were shot in New Zealand to great effect. All are epic films, drawing the viewer into their world. Although River Queen doesn't match those films, it aspires, and it is frequently stirring.
I can picture what Ward intended this film to be. Although it is sad he didn’t quite pull it off, River Queen can definitely be enjoyed for what it is.