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|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E||
dir Vincent Ward|
scr Vincent Ward, Toa Fraser
with Samantha Morton, Cliff Curtis, Temuera Morrison, Kiefer Sutherland, Stephen Rea, Rawiri Pene, Anton Lesser, Wi Kuki Kaa, Mark Ruka, Tyson Reweti, Grayson Putu, Nathan Passfield
release NZ 26.Jan.06, UK 15.Feb.08
05/New Zealand 1h54
Without a paddle: Morton and Curtis
This artful and evocative tale of the collision between colonialists and locals in 19th century New Zealand is beautifully filmed and strongly performed, although it also feels long and repetitive.
Sarah (Morton) lives with her father Francis (Rea) in an 1850s river frontier town. When Sarah's 7-year-old Maori-fathered son (Passfield) is kidnapped by his grandfather (Kaa), a tribal chief, Francis gives up and returns to Ireland, but Sarah remains with a loyal soldier (Sutherland) to find her son. Seven years later, she's asked to go upriver to help a dying young chief (Morrison). There she reunites with her now-teen son (Pene) and the uncle (Curtis) who raised him. And as a clash of cultures begins, she'll have to take sides.
This vivid story is based on several accounts from New Zealand history. Director-cowriter Ward assembles it with lyrical beauty; the forest is a mist-enshrouded primordial paradise, and the people who live there are complicated and engaging. By the time we get to the climactic confrontation, we know everyone on both sides--each has valid reasons for even their most brutal actions. And it's clear that joining the cultures together is the only way anyone will survive.
These themes provide a rich resonance, and as they're echoed in each character's personal journey, the film becomes powerfully emotional. Most of the cast is superb, while Morton holds the film together through skilful underplaying. We see right into her conflicted soul: is her home with the society of her birth, something new and unknown, or a combination of the two? But it's this continual back and forth that wears us out--up and down river so many times that we lose count.
The cyclical plot gets extremely tiring, especially when so many themes and images seem directly lifted from The Piano. At one point, Morton and Sutherland stumble upon what looks like that earlier film's set, complete with a full wardrobe of Victorian ball-gowns that fit Morton like a glove. This kind of thing makes the film feel meandering and indulgent. But this is only a slight misstep in a beautiful story that's involving, scary and extremely telling.
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© 2006 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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