River review – spectacular montage-doc goes to work on gushing waters | Movies


Australian director Jennifer Peedom had a huge hit with her 2017 documentary Mountain, descanting on the majesty of mountains. I found myself carried along by its admittedly gushy mix of great cinematography, swirling orchestral score, sonorous voiceover from Willem Dafoe and prose-poetic script by Robert Macfarlane. Peedom has now done it again, this time on the subject of rivers with the usual montage of powerful images.

Visually rich though it still is, I have to admit to being a bit restless with this kind of globalist Imax-style docu-fantasia – a hangover, maybe, from the success of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The droning observations can be platitudinous and verging on insufferable. “The world’s great cities all have a river at their heart!” intones Dafoe. (Suck it up, Brussels and Milan!) This film has a story, of sorts, to tell: once we let rivers alone, worshipped them, and allowed their course to determine where human settlements appeared. Now we dam and re-route them and use them to generate clean energy, though at the cost of damaging the flood plain.

As the river reaches the ocean, Dafoe wonderingly observes: “Its spirit is now lost for ever … but its death in the ocean is only the beginning of its reincarnation.” This kind of religiose incantation becomes wearing after a while, and it is exasperating when the film does not specify which rivers, in which countries, we are looking at. This becomes a particular problem when we see examples of derelict dams being dynamited, the water rushing forth and the river reborn. Which rivers are these? What specific environmental problems was the dam causing, and when did the politicians decide the energy gain wasn’t worth it? We don’t discover. But it’s still an impressive visual event for the big screen.

River is released on 18 March in cinemas.

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