In Review: The Dark Horse (2014)

by Tony Griffiths on 31/03/2015


Ask for a recommendation from the vaults of New Zealand cinema and chances are that the response will centre on a certain fantasy trilogy. New Zealand cinema may not be known for prolific output, but, if there is any justice, its elite fellowship of favourites will soon be joined by The Dark Horse. Set on the country’s North Island, The Dark Horse is the true story of Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), a former chess champion whose biggest battle has become living with bipolar disorder in a community struggling to get by.

Having been released from hospital to live with his brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi) – a senior figure in a brutal local gang – and impressionable teenage nephew Mana (James Rolleston, last seen in domestic hit Boy (2010), Potini finds purpose at a chess club offering tutorage – in life as well as chess – to a group of youngsters in as desperate need of direction as he is.

If this sounds like a nag in danger of being felled by sentimentality, fear not. In many ways, the film’s biggest success is the balance writer-director James Napier Robertson strikes between romance and reality. Take the opening scene: we meet a bedraggled Potini as he wanders aimlessly, hands aloft, conversing with the sky, showered simultaneously with rain and sunlight. What could easily become a series of clumsy meteorological metaphors proves apt companion for a protagonist who is big on spirit and short on subtlety.

And so it goes, wild weather, life lessons and regal references to Maori lore help drive home messages of triumph over adversity, while unobtrusive camerawork, a colloquial script and naturalistic performances (anchored by Curtis’ compelling mix of fidgets, frowns and wide-eyed wonder) ensures there’s as much spit as there is polish. The gritty tension in the central story arc is particularly well handled.

The film does wobble slightly in the third act as a chess tournament excursion flirts with a Mighty Ducks (1992) style finale, but, thankfully, the picture it more closely resembles – in theme and structure at least – is Shane Meadow’s Twenty Four Seven (1997). There, the focus was as much on the young boxers as their mentor. And while Robertson prefers to train his spotlight on the central pairing – the ‘king’ (Potini) and ‘heir’ (Mana) – ultimately, the film is not unlike Potini himself, a little rough around the edges but full of heart.

Tony has awarded The Dark House (2014) four Torches of Truth

4 torches

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