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The Dark Horse



MV5BMTAzNjI2NzM3NjdeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDM2NjcwMDIx__V1__SX1217_SY602_Released: 3 April 2015 (UK), 31 July 2014 (New Zealand, country of origin)

Directed By: James Napier Robertson

Starring: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Wayne Hapi, Niwa Whatuira

Certificate: 15

Reviewed By: Larry Oliver

The poster art for The Dark Horse, a gripping and unsentimental New Zealand-set drama from writer-director James Napier Robertson, is misleading. It depicts the film’s real-life hero, Genesis Potini (a career-defining turn from Cliff Curtis), a Maori chess prodigy, staring at the heavens wearing a cape of many colours.

The image comes from the film’s arresting opening as Gen (as he is known) walks down the middle of the road, muttering in the rain. He walks into a games shop, spies a chess set. This triggers him to correct the game, as if solving a mechanical problem in double quick time. A woman calls to him. ‘We can play chess at home.’ Gen is bundled aggressively into the back of a van, protesting like a bawling child, but never excessively violent.

Chess films are not known for their huge box-office. Searching for Bobby FischerThe Luzhin Defence – you’ll struggle to find them on your movie-streaming service. The Dark Horse might just be the exception, as it shows chess as an alternative to crime. For Gen, released from an institution into the care of his brother Ariki (real-life Maori gang member Wayne Hapi) becomes an unlikely mentor for his nephew, Mana (James Rolleston).

Mana is facing induction into a Maori gang on his fifteenth birthday. But he is a slightly built young man who is subjected to bullying in the open-door confines of his father’s house. Mana and Gen first meet after Gen falls asleep on his bed – you sense Mana’s room was once Gen’s. Mana is fascinated by Gen’s clippings. ‘You were once the dark horse,’ he comments in a tone somewhere between incredulity and awe.

When accompanying Mana to buy beer, Gen spies a poster for a kids’ chess club (known as the Eastern Knights) run by someone he knows. He makes a house call at 4:30 in the morning – he might look like he has learning difficulties, but Gen can drive – and offers his services. ‘I’m supposed to focus on positivity, and this is positive.’ The shack where the class takes place is chaotic. Kids talk over each other, a ‘DJ’ plays music no one listens to. The group are encouraged to describe their superpowers. Gen announces that he is going to lead them to the Auckland chess championships in six weeks – greeted with immediate scepticism.

After Ariki gives Gen a thousand dollars to find a new home, Gen spends much of it on chess sets for the kids, including a hand carved set. Each club member is allowed to choose one which they must return at the start of each meeting. To his surprise – he is agitated, nervous but on the brink of pleasure – Gen is given one first: ‘a king for a king.’ To his even bigger surprise, he finds Mana has been following him and wants to join the club.

Curtis is great at showing Gen’s coping mechanism. He doesn’t fight others with force, but instead beckons others with a welcoming, enthusiastic tone of voice. He doesn’t do this around children – he must have learned that this has other connotations – and there is a terrific scene where this doesn’t quite work out for him.

As Gen sleeps outdoors by the town monument, you wonder why other characters don’t notice his body odour. Gen washes himself in a public restroom but, in another harrowing scene, his mind betrays him. Gen’s promising chess career was ended by a breakdown. He needs his medication to keep his mental demons at bay. In the publicity for this film, Gen is described as suffering from bipolar disorder, but I’m sure there is some autism in there as well. When he watches others play chess, he cannot help but shout out.

The performances in the film are universally strong and we see what is truly at stake when Mana endures his breaking-in ceremony. The portrayal of Maori gangs isn’t positive. ‘No one put a hand on my shoulder and said it was going to be all right,’ says Ariki pointedly.

The climax is almost the antithesis of a sports movie. Yes, there’s a tournament, but something else too. The ‘hand on the shoulder’ becomes an important gesture. The film is a paean to family and positivity. It isn’t without pain, but there’s humour too, and a sense that bravery doesn’t need violence to prove itself.

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