Aza’s 2 Line Review – The Dark Horse

Anchored by a towering central turn from Cliff Curtis, who delivers the performance of his career, The Dark Horse is a prime example of the vitality of New Zealand cinema. It’s raw, emotional, inspirational and, at its most intimate, a deeply moving insight into Maori culture in the modern age.

James Napier Robertson’s biopic on NZ local chess legend Genesis Potini epitomises everything I admire about the New Zealand film industry and their deft ability as storytellers. It is a potent human drama with real heart and a raw honesty that connects with the audience within the opening minutes. It delves into the world of lower middle class New Zealand, the plight of tradition clashing with modernity and the rites of passage in Maori culture. Where the echoes of expectation have lasting effects on the soul and where the almost suffocating inescapability of lower class hangs like a shroud over you. Yet within this seeming hopelessness chances opportunity & it’s the journey that The Dark Horse takes us on, delivering one of the most emotionally satisfying films of 2014.

Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis) is a recently released patient from a long term psychiatric hospital who is taken in by his older brother Noble (Kirk Torrance) to begin reintegration into the world. Genesis, a young chess prodigy, suffered a complete mental breakdown after his success and spent most of his adult life in care. Noble, a father to his soon to be 16 year son Mana (James Rolleston), is chief in a local Maori tribe who lives in a dilapidated commission house where every night is a rowdy booze fest. As Genesis tries to integrate back into that world he has to grapple with the demons that plague him and, in doing so, seizes on the opportunity to teach a group of disadvantaged local children chess with the goal of playing in the NZ national junior championships.

Cliff Curtis’ Oscar worthy turn as Genesis (Gen) is the finest performance in his career. He anchors the film with a towering, emotion charged turn that is every bit as complex and heartfelt as the unfolding story. He is dynamite in this. Alongside him, James Rolleston impresses as Mana, his nephew, a young man struggling between what he thinks he should do and what he wants to do. Rolleston is destined for big things, especially after his breakout in 2010’s Boy and now this. There’s a real intimacy here, as the pair face the layers of steep Maori culture and the imposition it brings on their lives & futures. Torrance is commanding as patriarch Noble who, over time, shows the cracks within his facade of strident traditionalism. All three characters face the same issue – where do they belong in this world? – and all three worlds collide because of it.

Along with the headiness of this very human drama, Robertson steady hand leverages the entire film with a sense of hope and light. There are small, intimate moments throughout The Dark Horse that show joy and it is within these moments that Robertson’s direction illicits such a personal reaction.  Seeing impoverished youth amazed and dazzled by their own achievements, however small in our perspective, is given great weight here and as the film moves into the chess arena it is easy to get swept up in the excitement of this ragtag team competing.

The Dark Horse is a prime example of the importance and relevance of New Zealand cinema today. It is a emotionally gripping and joyous experience which should not be missed. I’ve no qualms in saying it – The Dark Horse is in my top 3 films of the year and is essential viewing.