Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: James Napier Robertson
Stars: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Kirk Torrance, Wayne Hapi, Miriam McDowell, Barry T Hara, Xavier Horan, James Napier Robertson.
The New Zealand film industry seems to be punching well above its weight, having produced some marvelous and inspiring pieces of cinema, from Once Were Warriors through to The Piano, Whale Rider, Boy, and even the recent vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. Now add to that impressive list The Dark Horse.
This moving, heartfelt drama about Genesis Potini, a flawed chess genius who happens to be bipolar and suffers from depression and mood swings. This moving and inspiring underdog story was inspired by Jim Marbrook’s 2001 documentary of the same name that explored Potini’s interaction with the group of disadvantaged kids (and Marbrook is credited as a producer here) and how he turned their lives around.
This story of a flawed genius will remind audiences of Geoffrey Rush in Shine. Here it is Cliff Curtis (Whale Rider, etc), who holds our attention as Genesis, a former speed chess champion whose life has fallen apart. Potini was dismissed as being crazy and spent a few years locked up in a mental asylum, but the weird way in which his brain was wired made him something of a genius at chess.
When we first meet him he is wandering the streets in the pouring rain and mumbling incoherently to himself. Most people he encounters distrust him because of his erratic behaviour. He enters an antiques shop where he is mesmerised by an old chess board. In trying to get his life back together and stay out of institutions, Genesis begins working with a group of disadvantaged kids who call themselves the Eastern Knights and who gather in a makeshift clubhouse. Working with his counsellor Noble (Kirk Torrance), he begins to teach them chess. He eventually takes them all the way to the national championships in Auckland, where they square off against a bunch of privileged rich kids. But Potini’s determination also changed the direction of these kids’ lives.
A strong subplot involves Genesis’ teenage nephew Mana (played by James Rolleston, who first came to audience’s attention in the winning coming of age drama Boy) who is about to turn fifteen and be “painted” and initiated into the Maori bikie gang his father belongs to. In trying to keep Mana out of the gang life and its cycle of violence and destruction, Genesis comes into conflict with his more volatile bikie brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi). This study of the gang culture will remind many of the powerful Once Were Warriors and its unflinching look at domestic violence, the brutal Maori traditions, and themes of masculinity and pride and cultural identity.
Chess has often been used as a metaphor for life in a number of films like Boaz Yakin’s Fresh, etc, where it can also provide keen insights into the workings of a character’s thought processes. Here it also becomes a means for Genesis to overcome adversity and find redemption.
The Dark Horse is the second feature film from former television actor turned writer and director James Napier Robertson (the psychological thriller I’m Not Harry Jenson). The subject matter is at times grim, but Robertson handles the material with a great sense of compassion and sensitivity, and he gives the film a bittersweet tone. He also suffuses those scenes involving Mana and Ariki, who is determined to drag the teenager into a life of crime against his will, with a powerful and pervasive sense of tension and suspense. He also brings a similar element of suspense to the climactic chess tournament. Like a number of other great sports dramas, The Dark Horse is not so much about big sweeping triumphs as it is about the smaller but more satisfying victories.
Curtis is heartbreaking. Curtis put on weight to play Genesis and he delivers a compelling, wonderfully nuanced and complex performance as the damaged genius and loner struggling to overcome his personal demons and regain his place in a cruel world. This is easily the best performance of his career, and is deserving of the accolades Curtis has drawn through the festival circuit.
Rolleston delivers an extraordinarily powerful and persuasive performance here that builds on his brilliant breakout role in Boy – the boy can certainly act. And in his first film role, newcomer Hapi has an intimidating presence and he brings a dangerous and unpredictable edge to his performance.
The Dark Horse is a powerful drama and a genuinely moving piece of cinema that should not be missed!