Featuring: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Miriama McDowell, Kirk Torrance, Wayne Hapi, Te Ahorangi Retimana-Martin
Writer/Director: James Napier Robertson
Movie website: www.thedarkhorsefilm.com/
Verdict: A feel-good flick with edge that charms, shocks and packs an emotional wallop. The lead performance by Cliff Curtis is a tour de force.
Kiwi movie The Dark Horse kicks off the 2014-15 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival at Joondalup Pines on November 25, and what a superb opener it is!
Cliff Curtis (Whale Rider, Boy) is mesmerising in his portrayal of real-life bipolar chess champion Genesis (“Gen”) Potini. This is an instance of that ideal commonly cited but rarely realised of an actor “becoming” his character, and in the case of the complex, brilliant but burdened Gen, struggling under attack from demons of the mind, this is no mean feat. Curtis captures the dignity and inspirational courage of a deeply humane and sensitive man who rises above a debilitating and isolating mental illness in the service of empowering at-risk Maori youth, while finding personal meaning and purpose and a measure of stability through his mission.
Previously institutionalised and now homeless and heavily medicated, Gen becomes involved with a community chess club for local kids. There he finds acceptance that is denied him by the greater community, and soon emerges as an inspirational leader, reconnecting the kids with their cultural mythology in the course of mentoring them in chess, with the unlikely objective of having them compete in the coming national youth chess championship.
Gen fears for the welfare of his troubled nephew Mana (compellingly played by James Rolleston), who lives with a biker gang, The Vagrants, headed by his father – Gen’s brother, the intimidating, warrior-like Ariki (Wayne Hapi). Mana is subjected to humiliating initiation abuses by the gang as he nears his 16th birthday, when he is due to be patched as a full-fledged Vagrants member. At Gen’s encouragement, he secretly begins attending the chess club. With the chess championship approaching and coinciding with Mana’s birthday, the course is set for a dramatic climax that will pitch Gen and his fearsome but ailing brother into direct conflict.
Beautifully filmed by Perth cinematographer Denson Baker, and featuring some impossibly cute kids, all of whom play their parts wonderfully, The Dark Horse charms, shocks and packs an emotional wallop. It’s a feel-good flick with real edge, and a must-see for the towering performance of Cliff Curtis alone, which is in itself an extraordinary cinema experience.
If this is any indication of the quality in store in this year’s film festival, Perthites are in for a treat.
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