A standard arc of redemption may sit at the centre of The Dark Horse, but the earnest biopic exceeds any semblance of formula.
Like a bull in a china shop, Genesis (Cliff Curtis, A Thousand Words) ambles into an antiques store on the streets of Gisborne. Lumbering in his legs, wandering in his eyes and mumbling in his speech, he is drawn to a chess set on display, his dishevelled demeanour attracting attention. The authorities arrive to escort him back to the facility he calls home; however on and off the board, Genesis still dreams of making moves beyond his chosen square. Reluctantly released to live with his bikie brother, Ariki (first-timer Wayne Hapi), and teenage nephew, Mana (James Rolleston, Boy), he attempts to manoeuvre the pieces of his life towards something more meaningful, channelling his efforts into assisting at-risk youth prepare for an upcoming national tournament.
The key early scene, heightening Genesis’ noticeable physicality and expressed with the erratic images and dissonant sounds that ape his mindset, paints the perfect portrait of a problematic protagonist, his perception, and his reception by the surrounding world. Smart but suffering from a debilitating bipolar disorder, he is regarded warily by everyone around him, yet just wants the same ordinary comforts they covet. In his second feature after 2009’s I'm Not Harry Jenson, writer/director James Napier Robertson establishes this divide from the outset, and his film is all the better for it. A standard arc of redemption may sit at the centre of The Dark Horse as a troubled soul tries to good, transitioning into sports movie tropes as chess prowess comes to the fore; however in the thoughtful treatment of the subject and the purposeful evocation of his specific outlook, the feature exceeds any semblance of formula.
That the film tells the true tale of chess prodigy turned coach Genesis Potini accounts for its consideration and contemplation, in a case of actuality furnishing finessed details that fiction just can’t replicate. Though a figure of hero worship for reasons the narrative builds to explain, the rendering of his plight emphasizes reality over fantasy. As the feature tracks his determination to eke out a normal existence by aiding others, it does so with an understanding that happy endings come in a variety of forms, and that small wins are just as important as grand gestures. In rescuing his nephew from a criminal future, and by using his game-playing skills to mentor the region’s disaffected next generation, Genesis is simply trying to make a difference – both to himself, and to others. In infusing the film with a prevailing bittersweet tone and creating texture in patient visuals steeped in shadows, Robertson bounces hope but never naivety through content and aesthetics drawn from life’s darker side.
The factual standing of what amounts to an emotional, earnest biopic also provides a platform for an exceptional performance by Curtis in the lead role. Passion simmers through his portrayal, one of the versatile actor’s best from a career that includes the locally made The Piano, Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider, as well as overseas efforts Bringing Out the Dead, Training Day and Sunshine. His interpretation of Genesis finds its basis in what is seen and shown rather than what is said, conveying the appropriate mix vulnerability and volatility. Rolleston, also making waves in The Dead Lands and advanced far beyond the first role that endeared him to audiences, is the other obvious standout amongst a cast of exuberantly naturalistic youngsters and underplayed adults exceeding stereotypical character classifications.
Opportunities to applaud the excellent cinema output of New Zealand only continue to mount in 2014, across an array of efforts diverse in subject, tone and genre. To a line-up that already includes vampire mockumetary What We Do in the Shadows, horror-comedy Housebound and coming-of-age effort Fantail, The Dark Horse is a welcome inclusion that shares the same celebration of talent and excitement for home-grown stories. Indeed, it is enthusiasm and energy that reigns supreme across the entire crop, and in The Dark Horse’s particular brand of moving musings. In a modest man and his unexpected impact, both have found a worthy champion.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
The Dark Horse
Director: James Napier Robertson
New Zealand, 2014, 124 mins
Release date: November 20