The New Zealand film industry is hardly a powerhouse in world cinema. Every so often it throws up a gem, but the early work of Peter Jackson aside, it tends to be a rare event. Whale Rider is probably the country’s most well known success, but it’s the powerful Once Were Warriors which is probably the best New Zealand film of all time. James Napier Robertson’s new film,The Dark Horse, is set to challenge it for that crown.
Genesis (Cliff Curtis) is allowed to leave a mental institution when his brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi) reluctantly agrees to vouch for him. Gen looked up to his big brother during an unhappy childhood, taking refuge in chess when first institutionalised. Akiri, on the other hand, sought refuge in the brotherhood of a gang and his wants his son Mani (James Rolleston), to join on his 16th birthday. When the uncomfortable sibling relationship soon breaks down, it seems inevitable that Gen will be returning to the hospital again. However, he immerses himself in helping local children to compete in a chess tournament, whilst trying to rescue his nephew from an inevitable life of crime.
Inspired by a true story, The Dark Horse is a powerful acted and brilliantly made film. Cliff Curtis puts in the performance of his career as the mercurial Genesis. The story itself is inspiring, and Robertson ensures that it steers well clear of melodrama or over-egging the emotional fallout. In many ways The Dark Horse is a contemporary exploration into the territory first covered in Once Were Warriors. This is a side of New Zealand society which is often hidden in favour of the Lord of the Rings tourist friendly beauty, but it’s an area which fosters great cinema.
The Dark Horse is out in cinemas on Friday.