THE DARK HORSE. Starring: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, and Wayne Hapi. Directed by James Napier Robertson. Rated PG (Mild themes). 110 min.
This wonderful New Zealand film tells the story of a chess champion who used his talents to rescue youths at risk from the disaster of realising the worst of their potential.
The story is inspired by the life of Genesis Potini - "the dark horse" of the film's title - played brilliantly in the movie by Cliff Curtis. Genesis was a Maori chess savant who suffered from bipolar disorder and was hospitalised with it frequently. From time to time, Genesis succumbed to his mental illness, but his high-speed style of chess playing and his intricate knowledge of the game, were sources of amazement to those who knew him.
Genesis died in 2011. He was not especially well known at the time, but he had a charismatic influence on all those who came into contact with him. He always placed his own mental illness behind the goal of helping others.
This is an incredibly moving and inspiring film about the courage of one man who wanted to pass hope onto others so that they could find a purpose in life.
The performance of Curtis as Genesis is breath-taking. Curtis literally absorbs the role of Genesis and transforms it. He acts the part of an ungainly man, determined to do right, and who is charismatic enough to make sure others are touched by his message "of trying to get them some positivity". His acting is one of those rare performances in which the viewer is almost embarrassed to know that someone else with a camera is also watching. The film is full of private moments, telling closeups, and intimate (entirely non-sexual) actions, that are emotionally very revealing.
Moving out of a mental institution to pursue one last chance in life, Genesis decides, against all odds, to train a group of unruly adolescents to be chess champions. He wants them to compete in a national, junior chess championship to be held in Auckland. To do that, he teaches them how to control their aggressive behaviour, how to solve their own conflicts, and by doing that he also learns how to cope better with his own inner struggles.
James Rolleston plays his nephew Mana who is pressured to be antisocial and rebellious like his father, Ariki (Wayne Hapi), but who eventually succumbs to Genesis' positive influence. Genesis takes Mana in tow, pulls him away from his father's criminal brotherhood gang, and gives him the goals in life that he needs desperately. Genesis' message to Mana, that expresses a strong cross-cultural acceptance theme for the movie as a whole, is "you are not what they're making you think you are".
This movie has similarities to "Once Were Warriors" (1994), in which Curtis played the role of "Bully". Like the 1994 film, it deals with the problems of Maori culture, but it concentrates on the passage out of adversity by focusing on the life, vision and longings of a very determined and generous man.
The direction of the film by James Napier Roberston is confident, sensitive and assured, and he frequently injects into the movie telling scenes, beautifully photographed, that convey dramatic strength. He turns a memorial in a park into a giant chess piece, for example, while a homeless Genesis is curled up on its steps fingering a Maori-carving in his hand, and shots of Genesis wandering through the rain in his multicoloured blanket-coat establish right from the start the lead character's extraordinary individuality.
The film contrasts intelligently the competition of winning strategically a game of chess with the challenges of trying to find true purposes in life and act upon them decisively. Curtis brings a level of energy and intimacy to his role as the saviour of youth-in-need that is amazing.
This is an absorbing, and uplifting movie that is highly emotionally charged. It richly deserves to be seen, and is the kind of movie that will stay in one's memory for a long time. And it represents New Zealand film-making at its best.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of he Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Peacock Films Pty. Ltd.
Released November 20th., 2014