Review: Mahana

Mahana (known as The Patriarch in the U.S.) represents a return to form and a return to his homeland for Kiwi director Lee Tamahori. The Once Were Warriors director has wisely gone back to his roots to regain his mojo.

Set in rural New Zealand in the 1960s, this is the story of the Mahana family, ruled with an iron fist by its patriarch Tamihana (Temeura Morrison). Stoic and stern and prone to physical violence, Tamihana is a bully who no one in the family would dare stand up to. His intimidating physicality notwithstanding, Tamihana is revered for having built his property and sheep shearing business from scratch, no small feat for an indigenous man at the time.

His untouchable invincibility within his clan is about to receive its first challenge in the form of his 14-year old grandson Simeon (Akuhata Keefe). Simeon is a bit of a black sheep – curious to a fault, highly intelligent and fiercely independent. Whether he likes it or not, he puts himself on a collision course with his grandfather. When this happens, it has serious consequences for Simeon and his parents.

Then there’s the long standing feud the Mahanas have with the Poatas, another sheep shearing family in the district. The feud stems back to when Simeon’s grandmother Ramona (Nancy Brunning) was swept away from one of the Poata men by Tamihana.

The truth behind the origins of the feud don’t come to light until near the end of the film, by which time the plucky Simeon has well and truly put himself in the firing line and challenged authority and long standing traditions on many levels.

This is an adaptation of a much loved novel by Witi Ihimaera, who also wrote Whale Rider, and it’s set in his home town of Gisborne. It gives a fascinating insight into Maori culture, deeply ingrained with machismo and violence, and the injustices its people suffered at the hands of white man’s law.

It’s great to see Tamahori come full circle both thematically and geographically. He hasn’t directed anything this intimate and emotionally powerful since his acclaimed debut. And of course, now he brings to the table all the technical craftsmanship he’s developed helming much larger scale Hollywood studio productions.

He has at his disposal a uniformly excellent cast. Morrison, who was such an intimidating presence in Once Were Warriors, is equally so here. In fact, it’s easy to imagine he’s playing the same character 20 years on.

Just as impressive is young Keefe. His ability to win our hearts appears effortless, he so easily conveys inner strength, sensitivity and an innate sense of comic timing. This is his only screen role to date, we can only hope it won’t be his last.

Needless to say, the New Zealand landscapes are truly gorgeous, beautifully captured by Ginny Loane’s widescreen cinematography.

There may be a Whale Rider-inspired sense of deja vu to the story, but thanks to first-rate characterisation and acting, Mahana is a wholly rewarding experience.

✭✭✭✭

Mahana is screening exclusively at Cinema Nova.

Richard Leathem @dickiegee