Reuniting the trio who made Once Were Warriors - actor Morrison, director Tamahori and producer Robin Scholes - the first local release of the year is an impressive adaptation of Witi Ihimaera's 1994 novel Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies.
Screenwriter John Collee (Master and Commander; Happy Feet) streamlines the long-winded original into a tight family saga of promises broken and secrets kept. The result has a universal appeal (with a few tweaks, you could set it in India or China), but is suffused with a Maori sensibility that goes well beyond the script's occasional snatches of te reo.
In the film, originally entitled The Patriarch and set in the 1960s, Morrison plays Tamihana Mahana, who rules his Ngati Porou whanau with an uncompromising gruffness hard to distinguish from abusiveness.
The principal target of his brutal domineering is his 14-year-old grandson Simeon (Keefe), whom he sets to menial tasks ("You're not a man yet," he taunts him) like chopping wood and milking, although the boy aches to shear with one of the family gangs helmed by his father, Joshua (Taylor). Meanwhile, the Mahanas are in fierce competition with the Poatas, led by Rupene (Moriarty): the long-running feud is the dramatic heart of the story, though its origins only gradually become clear.
At first the ill-will is played for laughs. An early sequence involving a dirt-road race in Austins, Vauxhalls and Humbers has the frantic, headlong feel of Came A Hot Friday. But as the bullying patriarch begins to assume the form of a tinpot Lear, the film takes a darker turn: the innocents will suffer for their honesty and the family will be torn apart before it is reunited. Collee drops nicely crafted hints about the story's mythic echoes in snatches of dialogue ("Men fight for what they want," Simeon's grandmother (Brunning) tells him. "That's the way of the world.") But the key line is one from George Bernard Shaw, mentioned by Simeon's schoolteacher: "A family is a tyranny ruled over by its weakest member." At heart, this is a film about weakness and strength, about silence and the power of speaking out.
Cinematographer Ginny Loane, shooting mainly in the Kaipara standing in for Poverty Bay, conjures a world full of elemental dangers - water, fire, sharpened steel - and delivers vistas of dusty roads, shifting tides of sheep or silvery moonlit pastures. A hat-tip, too, to Mark Robins and Liz McGregor, for production and costume design respectively, who evoke a past that has a patina of age even as it seems brand-new.
By contrast, some of the acting is less than compelling, though it is all genial and old pros John Leigh and Greg Johnson have fun as a couple of commentators at the shearing champs.
But Tamahori deploys the action-movie skill he's developed in the US, without ever losing the feel of his homeland. This is proudly a Maori story with a Maori denouement, and it's a fitting reminder of the important place Ihimaera occupies in our national literature.
Cast: Temuera Morrison, Akuhata Keefe, Nancy Brunning, Jim Moriarty, Regan Taylor Maria Walker
Director: Lee Tamahori
Running time: 103 mins
Rating: M (sexual references & content that may disturb.
Verdict: Heartfelt and handsome