Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Lee Tamahori
Stars: Temuera Morrison, Nancy Brunning, Akuhata Keefe, Jim Moriarty, Regan Taylor, Maria Walker, Sienna MacKinlay.
Twenty years ago Lee Tamahori gave us one of the best films to come out of New Zealand with Once Were Warriors, an exploration of masculinity, violence, family and Maori pride. After flirting with big budget Hollywood action films like Along Came A Spider and the Bond adventure Die Another Day, etc, Tamahori returns home for this powerful, uplifting and moving drama about family, secrets and reconciliation, set in rural New Zealand in the early 60s. Based on the novel Bulibasha: King Of The Gypsies written by Witi Ihimaera (Whale Rider), Mahana shares a number of similar themes as Once Were Warriors , although it is nowhere near as gritty or confronting or disturbing.
This emotionally moving drama centres around the Mahanas, a large sheep farming family ruled over by their overbearing and brutal grandfather Tamihana (played by Temuera Morrison). The extended family work their various land holdings. There is a fierce rivalry between the Mahana family and their neighbours the Poata family. The origins of the feud are shrouded in mystery at the start of the film, but some revelations bring it into sharp focus. Tamihana’s long suffering wife Ramone (Nancy Brunning) does her best to hold the family together through numerous plights.
But Mahana is also a wonderful coming of age story as fourteen year old Simeon (newcomer Akuhata Keefe), a bright but slightly rebellious lad, begins to stand up to the grandfather and question some of his beliefs. The consequences of his defiance though lead to rift in the family but ultimately to a reconciliation and the revelation of some long hidden secrets about the truth behind the family’s long running bitter feud with their neighbours.
John Collee’s adaptation does contain the occasional cliche, but this is a superb and entertaining drama that offers insights into the Maori community, their traditions and culture. There are some nice touches of humour throughout the material, and touches of warmth. Tamahori deftly juggles the numerous subplots with ease. He obviously has sympathy for the family. The dramatic centre piece of the film is the sheep shearing competition, in which powerful family secrets are revealed. This exciting sequence also features some of the best sheep shearing scenes committed to celluloid since Sunday Too Far Away.
Reunited with Tamahori, Morrison, best known for playing Jake the Muss in Once Were Warriors, has a fierce, commanding and intimidating screen presence that is put to good use here as the strict patriarch who rules his family with an iron fist. He has a gruff quality and an imposing presence, but he is careful to not to merely replicate his role from Once Were Warriors, bringing subtle nuances to his performance here. In his first film role, newcomer Keefe is also a revelation with a strong and intelligent performance in the pivotal role of Simeon, who shows strength and the qualities of manhood demanded by his grandfather. He has a winning personality. Jim Moriarty brings gravitas to his role as Ruperi Poata, the head of the rival family, and the feud between the two families drives much of the drama and tension.
The film looks gorgeous thanks to the widescreen cinematography of Ginny Loane (Shopping, etc) whose striking work captures the natural beauty and stunning vistas of the windswept countryside and unspoiled rural terrain. Through careful attention to detail with costumes, cars and settings, Tamahori has faithfully recreated the period.
Mahana (aka The Patriarch in some territories) is another winner from New Zealand, whose film industry continues to punch above its weight.