Would that director Vincent Ward’s embattled “River Queen” might have emerged unscathed from its troubled, headline-making production. This longtime dream project for the acclaimed Kiwi helmer — and his first pic since “What Dreams May Come” in 1998 — finally reaches the screen as a waterlogged would-be epic, lacking the emotion, narrative invention and visual brilliance that mark Ward’s best films (including “The Navigator” and “Map of the Human Heart”). Having driven most of its Toronto industry screening audience into a deep slumber or early exit, “River” looks to be cast out to sea by most theatrical buyers.
The time is 1854 and, as an opening text informs, New Zealand’s indigenous Maori population is engaged in a last-ditch effort to stave off European colonization. Clashes have erupted between the natives and the settlers, while some Maori have taken to siding with the Europeans. At an Irish garrison located on the banks of a rural river, Sarah (Samantha Morton), the daughter of the resident surgeon (Stephen Rea), has an affair with Tommy Boy, the son of a powerful Maori tribal leader. She becomes pregnant, but by the time the baby, called Boy, is born, Tommy Boy has died, leaving Sarah to turn the garrison into a makeshift home front.
Six years later, Boy is kidnapped by his paternal grandfather, who believes the child should be raised according to Maori tradition. Sarah’s father and sister set off for presumably safer shores, while Sarah stays behind, resolved to find her missing son.
Another seven years pass as Sarah travels upriver and down, searching for Boy, until she is finally confronted by the warrior Wiremu (“Whale Rider” star Cliff Curtis), who promises to lead Sarah to her son if she will use her renowned healing powers to help ailing rebel chief Te Kai Po (Temuera Morrison). Both parties hold up their ends of the bargain, but when Sarah is finally reunited with the now-teenage Boy (David Rawiri Pene), she finds her son torn between his two opposing cultures.
Drawing heavily on the cowboys-and-Indians theme of classical Hollywood Westerns, with particular echoes of “The Searchers” and Don Siegel’s “Flaming Star,” “River Queen” clearly fancies itself as a sweeping, multigenerational chronicle of frontier Kiwi life (complete with the running time to prove it). Sadly, the pic’s widely reported production woes, which included the prolonged illness of Morton and the eventual firing of Ward — cinematographer Alun Bollinger (“Heavenly Creatures”) is said to have completed principal photography, with Ward then returning for post — are all too evident in the finished product.
Choppy, decades-spanning narrative moves forward in fits and starts, with gratuitous amounts of voiceover narration (by Morton) employed in an evident (but unsuccessful) bid to smooth things over. As for Morton herself, she commits to the role with end-of-her-tether intensity, but can only do so much to overcome character motivations that range from the murky to the completely incomprehensible, as when Sarah, having become a de facto member of Te Kai Po’s tribe, suddenly returns to the garrison and to the very soldier (Kiefer Sutherland, doing an atrocious Long John Silver accent) whose romantic advances she has heretofore rebuffed.
At his strongest, Ward can be a ravishing stylist who, like Terrence Malick, creates images of an overwhelmingly sensual, nearly metaphysical beauty. But despite its lush setting, “River Queen” looks and feels decidedly more conventional, and the elaborate period re-creations often ring false — the sets and costumes seem somehow too new and too clean.
Strangest of all, for a movie that Ward labored years to make, is how distant and impersonal the pic feels. It’s as though Ward doesn’t really care all that much about what comes of Sarah and Boy. In turn, neither does the audience.