River: Poetic exploration of the planet’s arteries

Film review: Documentary features incredible aerial imagery and sonorous narration

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Director: Jennifer Peedom, Joseph Nizeti
Cert: Club
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Willem Dafoe
Running Time: 1 hr 15 mins

Jennifer Peedom has rightly enjoyed two spectacular documentary successes with Mountain and Sherpa. This poetic third feature, featuring a script from writer Robert Macfarlane and sonorous narration from Willem Dafoe, offers a masterclass in daredevil cinematography.

Five credited directors of photography – Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Sherpas Cinema (as per credit), Ben Knight, Peter McBride, Renan Ozturk – swoop and swoon over crevices and ravines as the tributaries of the title alternately spring, spread and surge into oceans. The effect is dizzying, woozy and sublime.

Macfarlane’s script – co-written with Peedom and Nizeti – contemplates humanity’s relationship with rivers, relates how the first civilisations were built within walking distance of rivers, and that most major cities are bisected by famous watercourses.

Epic photography

A soundtrack from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and additional music from William Barton, Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead – and Bach and Vivaldi for good measure – adds to the epic sweep of the photography and Simon Njoo’s exquisite editing.

River, for all this pedigree, is not quite as impressive or convincing as Peedom’s previous films. The director’s exploration of the “arteries of the earth” produces incredible aerial imagery and a wonderful vocal performance from Dafoe.

Various arguments concerning the fragility of rivers and the unnaturalness of dams fail to live up to the visuals or the delivery.

Too often, this is a film that ought to exist as a poetic montage in the spirit of Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi, or as an environmental argument. It’s simultaneously too tangential and not tangential enough. River instead exists as a lovely chronicle that meanders away from more powerful possibilities.

It is very much an old-school IMAX film, designed for enveloping, hypnotic sensation, at a moment when all IMAX screens are given over to (the admittedly fantastic) The Batman. That’s a discussion worth having. For now, whatever the caveats, there’s an irresistible romance in these waterways.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic