The Dark Horse

 

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The game of chess may be central to this real-life drama but this powerful work has wide appeal.

 

Dark Horse, The

Cliff Curtis with an opponent

 

Although in past years the work of Vincent Ward made an impact here, films from New Zealand are something of a rarity in our cinemas.This piece is the work of James Napier Robinson as writer, director and even as actor (in a supporting role) and what inspired him was the story of the one-time Maori chess champion Genesis Potini which he first became aware of through a documentary film about him shot in 2003. In making this dramatisation, Robinson found an ideal cast.  In particular the leading player, Cliff Curtis known to us for his appearances in Once Were Warriors (1994) and Whale Rider (2002), is ideal: he is a great screen presence and is crucial to the film's success.

 

As an outsider, I found it uncertain to what extent the film was seeking to be a wider comment about the experience of Maoris in society and, equally, since so many true stories treated in the cinema are rather free adaptations, I do not know to what extent the true events have been embellished (the film's ending is not quite as persuasive as what has gone before). However, as drama this is strong stuff. It may be about a former chess champion but it is also about siblings - Genesis has a brother (Wayne Hapi) who leads a criminal gang - and about the desire that Genesis has to rescue his teenage nephew (James Rolleston) from this way of life. Involving youngsters in chess up to competitive levels is part of this.

 

The Dark Horse features tough characters many of whom are very unappealing but, if Genesis himself is equally tough and never softened in this portrayal, his aims make him a true hero. Given the outstanding performance by Curtis - and it really is outstanding - the story of Genesis Potini becomes compelling. The Dark Horse deserved far more attention than it got on its British release.  

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Kirk Torrance, Xavier Horan, Mirama McDowell, Baz Te Hira, Wayne Hapi, Lyel Timu, Te Ahorangi, Retimana-Martin, Calae Hignett-Morgan, Te Rua Rehu Martin.


Dir James Napier Robertson, Pro Tom Hern, Screenplay (inspired by Jim Marbrook's 2003 documentary Dark Horse), Ph Denson Baker, Pro Des Kim Sinclair, Ed Peter Roberts, Music Dana Lund, Costumes Kristin Seth.


Four Knights Film/Seville International/New Zealand Film Commission-Koch Media.
125 mins. New Zealand/Canada. 2014. Rel: 3 April 2015. Cert. 15
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