'Dark Horse' Depicts Maoris With Rare Respect

James Napier Robertson's film transports us to human, geographic, social and cultural terrains rarely encountered on the screen.

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The Dark Horse Written and directed by James Napier Robertson; with Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Wayne Hapi

“The Dark Horse,” directed by New Zealander James Napier Robertson, might have sunk into the depths of banality if not for certain saving graces. It is a movie based on a true story (which was already the subject of a 2003 documentary), is focused on a tortured soul who seeks redemption by helping at-risk teens, and aims to fill us with inspiration. “The Dark Horse” thus treads some very well-worn paths. We’ve seen too many pictures of this kind before, and most of them are formulaic and predictable. Robertson does not completely avoid the same formulas, but his film has other aspects that make up for the hackneyed parts and turns it into a work of value and interest.

Some films are appealing simply because they transport us to human, geographic, social and cultural terrains rarely encountered on the screen. That is true of Robertson’s movie, which is set in New Zealand’s Maori community. “The Dark Horse” is not the first film to be made about the Maoris: earlier examples include “Once Were Warriors” and “Whale Rider.” Nevertheless, movies that focus on the Maori people remain rare, and Robertson successfully avoids using them as folkloric, exotic subject matter.

“The Dark Horse” tells the story of Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), once a celebrated chess champion known for his swift moves and speedy wins. The movie begins when Genesis is discharged from a long stay in a mental institution, where he was treated for bipolar disorder. He is released into the care of his older brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi), the crude, rough leader of a local crime gang – a fact that does not exactly help Genesis in his rehabilitation. What makes the family situation even more complicated is Ariki’s teenage son, Mana (James Rolleston), whose father wants him to join the gang. Mana is not interested, but he lacks the strength to oppose Ariki.

Genesis, whose mental state is still shaky, is miserable in his brother’s house and prefers to live on the street. Still believing in the power of chess, he finds the first hint of possible salvation when he discovers a local club for teens from broken homes, and volunteers to teach there. Although the kids who come to the club don’t know the first thing about chess, Genesis, in the enthusiasm that may be a product of his illness, proposes to train them for a national competition in Auckland. Because his behavior is still eccentric, Genesis is not immediately welcomed by the club’s staff and the youths themselves; they suspect that his dream is more delusion than practical possibility. But gradually his gentleness and the mysteries of the game draw them in. But then Mana, too, decides to join the club, hiding the fact from his father, who is still determined to see him become a gang member.

Foreigners in their own land

Will Mana succeed in rebelling against his father with the help of his uncle? Can the teens at the club learn to play chess well enough so that the competition will not leave them too humiliated? It’s not hard to guess the answers to these questions. But in “The Dark Horse,” what matters is less the story than the setting. With the help of cinematographer Denson Baker, Robertson ably captures the locales where the events take place. The palette is as murky as the situation, and the movie gives the place a hopeless feel, so that salvation seems almost impossible. Another virtue of “The Dark Horse” is the faces it shows us: their expressive nature creates the ethnic human tapestry that serves as a backdrop to the plot.

This becomes especially noticeable when Genesis and the youths travel to the national competition, where all the other contenders seem as though they are from another country: They are white, of British descent, many of them blond. The contrast between them and the Maori teens makes a statement about the position of the heroes as foreigners within their own country. Robertson portrays the competition as drily as he does everything else. There is enthusiasm in these scenes, but – unlike most movies that offer this kind of plot – they are not shown as moments of defeat or triumph charged with romance or sentimentality. Precisely for that reason, they are effective, even poignant.

Because Robertson keeps a certain emotional distance from his film, it took me a while to get caught up in it; eventually, however, I was swept in, largely thanks to Cliff Curtis’ lead performance. Curtis, another native New Zealander, has appeared in various local pictures, such as “The Piano,” “Once Were Warriors” and “Whale Rider,” but he has also had supporting roles in many American films and television shows, including Michael Mann’s “The Insider,” Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day” and the last, redundant movie in the “Die Hard” franchise. His face, while familiar, is virtually unrecognizable in this movie, and if until now we have overlooked him, “The Dark Horse” will change that. His performance as Genesis is the role of a great actor, precise and restrained and never coy or self-ingratiating – like the movie as a whole.