Thursday, 20 November 2014


Transmission Films

The opening scene of The Dark Horse is reminiscent of Scott Hicks' 1996 Oscar-winner, Shine: a mentally fragile man wandering the streets mumbling and rambling walks out of the rain and into a store, impressing patrons with his skills. Not on the piano, as was the case in Shine -- where Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott tickled the ivories and went on to win a statuette -- but on the chessboard.

The man is Genesis (Cliff Curtis) who was once a chess prodigy but whom life has inflicted many a defeat upon; the former champion now man-child is a patient at a mental health facility. But a return to chess will be his redemption, and will also serve to inspire a younger generation in The Dark Horse, which could be dubbed a feel-good film albeit the kind that leaves bruises.

For while writer-director James Napier Robertson's film has plenty of light moments -- provided mostly by the wide-eyed yet troubled kids whom Genesis comes to inspire; coaching them to a national chess tournament -- there's plenty of dark too. Not just Genesis's mental health issues but the fraught relationship with his elder brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi).

Ariki is the head of a gang which he hopes to see his son, Mana (James Rolleston), initiated into before his ailing health leaves the young boy fatherless. But the same Maori mythology which Genesis uses to inspire his young chess charges has been corrupted into a toxic ethos of machismo by the gang, which provided a family for Ariki when he was himself a boy and left to his own devices after his younger brother's removal into mental care.

But Genesis can see it is not the right path for his bright and inquisitive nephew; Mana already struggling in the early stages of his initiation at the hands of the gang's second-in-command, Mutt (Barry Te Hira). Relations inevitably turn ugly between the brothers in the tug-o-war for Mana's welfare.

You'll no doubt know Curtis from countless Hollywood roles where he usually plays the police officer or bad guy of indeterminate ethnicity but you'll barely recognise the New Zealand actor here. With his shaved scalp and pot belly, the handsome actor has eschewed vanity to portray the troubled hero. And he succeeds, by keeping the physical tics to a minimum but keeping Genesis's bruised yet hopeful heart on permanent display.

And the film's heart is on display too, even as the story becomes as muddled as Genesis in the third act, where the various dramas -- the chess tournament, Mana's future, Genesis's health -- compete for your attention and emotions. Robertson's moves may not always be judicious but the result, while no check mate, is a sweet victory all the same.

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