Let me take you to a wooden planet. Far out in space, imagine a giant satellite inhabited by monks. A medieval cathedral – almost a mile high – dominates the skyline. It’s surrounded by wheat-fields. In the distance there are windmills turning. This was to be the setting for Alien 3… if director Vincent Ward had had his way. I, for one, would have chopped down several trees to see it happen. But sadly, fate (and a management re-shuffle at 20th Century Fox) killed the project. Alien 3 was shifted to a space gaol. Vincent Ward moved on. Now, he has a new movie about his native country. It isn’t set on a wooden planet, but it still has Ward’s touch.
The setting is New Zealand in the mid-19th century. It’s a place that James Fenimore Cooper readers would recognise. The British are (as ever) building their Empire. The native people are (as ever) forced to choose: pragmatism or death. Some of the Maori tribes side with the invaders. Some don’t. So there’s war. And caught between the Maoris and the British there’s also Samantha Morton, mother to a half-Maori son, daughter of Stephen Rea, unrequited love of Kiefer Sutherland. She is the River Queen; she knows no borders. Life only touches her through her child. So of course, life being the way it is, her son is placed in mortal danger. And she too.
A white face, a blue dress, and a yellow bird mark River Queen as a Vincent Ward movie. The white face belongs to Samantha Morton, blindfolded, asleep in a canoe at night. The blue dress (on Morton) looks like Renoir’s “La Parisienne”. The yellow bird sits on Kiefer Sutherland’s chest, as if his soul had just hatched. These are images worth making a movie for. As with all his work, Ward paints as he tells his story. So New Zealand’s green feels like Eden; the Awanui River can look like a tattoo. The movie contains many astounding pauses – moments where we see something – in the same way a caesura makes you see words in a poem.
In the lead role, Samantha Morton convinces as a 19th century woman. There’s nothing artificial about her, nothing worldly without cause. As in the best Morton performances, her reactions speak sincerely. Her character is brave and capable, but never in a way that says bravery and freewill are her birthright. She lives in a man’s world. What’s interesting is the way Maori views of women seem to offer her new possibilities. In her exchanges with Temuera Morrison (playing a Maori chief), you see Morton re-evaluate herself and her culture. Morton has a good face for someone being re-born – thinking of her here and in Morvern Callar – she can seem empathetic and alien at once; someone who could reject a culture because she understands it. She never asks for anyone to like her.
Kiefer Sutherland – for one – has his heart broken in River Queen. He plays an Irish solider (again, someone torn between two cultures) who loves Morton hopelessly. Though he never masters his Irish accent, he does manage to unbuckle his Jack Bauer persona. Stoicism and violence can’t solve his problems in this movie. He is never more than a friend to Morton. To watch him, on a surgeon’s table, crying out and clinging to her – like a baby bird – he’s a forlorn sight. But he’s also allowed moments of grace, as when Morton puts on the white dress he’s kept for her. Too ailing for lust, he looks at her (from his sickbed) like the light that soothes all his fears.
Back to the wooden planet; an unabashed vision, like the tunnel that leads to the future in The Navigator, or the upside-down cathedral in What Dreams May Come. The best part of Vincent Ward is the part of him that embraces unfamiliar ideas. River Queen is a personal story for Ward, not because it’s about New Zealand, but because it’s about an explorer. Surrounded by those who want to bring the old world to new places, Samantha Morton’s character chooses, instead, to see in a new way. She has no need of conquest, or conventional order. Instead, she marks herself as different, unable to blend in. We look up to her, like a noble queen, or a brave new world.