One of Aotearoa's most iconic leaders gets an appropriately uplifting biopic in this respectful portrait anchored by heavyweight performances from Miriama McDowell and Rena Owen.
Born in Hokianga in 1895 and presumed by her father, a Māori chief, to be a boy, the woman who came to be known as Dame Whina Cooper would continue to defy expectations throughout a life dedicated to fighting for the interests of Māori.
The non-linear film jumps around in time to various points in Cooper's life, with Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne playing the teenage Whina in addition to McDowell and Owen's portrayals of her when older.
The jumping around is a tad disorienting at first – within the opening 15 minutes we've seen Whina at four different ages – but once the film settles down and commits to each era, a greater sense of her life (and life's work) shines through.
With Ngatai-Melbourne, we witness the spark of an indomitable spirit. With McDowell, we see Whina speak up where women traditionally weren't allowed to - and endure the consequences.
We learn about the love of her life, second husband Bill Cooper (Vinnie Bennett, enriching a relatively small role with considerable depth) and are party to the beginnings of Cooper's activism, informed as much by practicality and pragmatism as passion.
Moving to Auckland after Bill Cooper's death, Whina takes on the cause of impoverished urban Māori with a get-it-done attitude that ruffles further feathers.
With Owen, we see Whina inspiring Māori youth in the resurgent land rights movement, culminating in the legendary 1975 hikoi, an especially cinematic event informed by the filmmakers artfully integrating actual footage from the time into the movie. It carries a lot of weight.
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The episodic nature of the storytelling means Whina herself remains somewhat enigmatic, but McDowell and Owen do much to humanise this towering figure in smaller moments.
If the goal was to capture a sense of her mana in cinematic form, then co-directors James Napier Robertson (The Dark Horse) and Paula Whetu Jones (Waru) have very much achieved that.
By the time the credits roll, there's no denying the power of their subject – you feel it in your gut.
Cast: Rena Owen, James Rolleston, Miriama McDowell
Directors: Paula Whetu Jones, James Napier Robertson,
Running time: 112 minutes
Rating: PG (Violence)
Verdict: Modern resonance abounds in this powerful evocation of a complex leader.