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Male spirituality in Kiwi portrait of mental illness

Dark Horse (PG). Director: James Napier Robertson. Starring: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston. 110 minutes

New Zealand filmmaker Robertson’s latest feature has been described as a cross between modern antipodean classics Once Were Warriors and Shine. This is apt: like Warriors, Dark Horse considers masculinity, violence and spirituality in the lives of urban Maoris. Like Shine, it offers a moving portrait of a character whose mental illness appears to be the dark reflection of esoteric, obsessive genius.

You could draw a straight line, too, from ‘inspiring teacher’ stories such as Dead Poets Society. Where Robin Williams’ John Keating used poetry to free the young blue bloods in his care from the strictures of their conservative upbringings, Dark Horse’s Genesis (Curtis) — a former chess champion institutionalised for years for schizophrenia — uses chess to deter local youths from lives of crime.

Genesis aims to take his young charges to the national chess championships in Auckland. As such there’s a dash of the classic sports drama to Dark Hose, too; think Rocky and its ilk, where the focus and discipline required in the pursuit of sporting excellence stimulates hope and offers an exit point from adversity; and where achievement borne of hard work is allegorical to redemption.

Inspired by a true story, Dark Horse takes these familiar cinematic tropes and, impressively, builds from them something that feels both distinctive and utterly authentic. Writer-director Robertson manages to combine a gritty, dark, violent urban setting with a warm, inspiring, humorous story. It’s an impressive balancing act that keeps the film from being either too bleak or too saccharine.

Curtis, an accomplished Hollywood actor of Maori descent, underwent a physical transformation for the role, stacking on weight and studiously rehearsing the mannerisms of Genesis’ real-life counterpart (who died in 2011). His revelatory performance is nearly matched by Rolleston’s turn as Mana, Genesis’ nephew, for whom the choice between crime and chess could not be more urgent or fraught.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Dark Horse, mental illness, spirituality, James Napier, New Zealand



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