The Dark Horse that hasn't already been covered at length earlier in the pages of TimeOut, Canvas and ' />

It's hard to know what to say now about The Dark Horse that hasn't already been covered at length earlier in the pages of TimeOut, Canvas and elsewhere.

It is - as you've probably heard - a great, deeply affecting movie.

It is one that is going to leave its mark on local film history and - unless a story about a Maori bipolar chess genius is just too hard a sell to places overseas - you would hope, further afield.

But much of the coverage has focused on the cast, especially the gobsmackingly good, towering performance of Cliff Curtis as the movie's unlikely hero, Genesis Potini.


And also on that of James Rolleston as his nephew Mana, in a role that proves his leading turn in Boy wasn't just youthful exuberance harnessed.

The kid - well, teenager - can act. So can plucked-from-obscurity first-timer Wayne Hapi, as Mana's gang member Dad, Ariki. The three of them are the film's love triangle, with uncle trying to rescue the kid from his father's wanting to get his son patched, after enduring the usual abusive rituals.

It's a fierce, often brutal tug-of-war that may induce flashbacks to Once Were Warriors. And as such, it will likely spark discussions that this is yet another film about Maori failure, about life at the bottom of the heap.

Let the debate begin. But let's just remember how much Maori acting talent is on screen and that Potini's transformative life is effectively being celebrated here, as it was earlier in Jim Marbrook's earlier documentary, Dark Horse, which inspired this feature treatment.

What has been overlooked in the earlier coverage is just how brave, assured, and layered the work of director-writer Napier Robertson is.

It took me a second screening to notice some of his deft touches - maybe I had something in my eye during the first one.

It's brave because he has taken a true-life character and made a movie out of the man rather than his life history. But you still come away feeling like you've seen the world through Genesis' eyes during a roller coaster period in his life.

Rather than a by-numbers heroic biopic, this film exists within a pivotal chapter - barring some flashbacks to Genesis and Ariki's own childhoods.


But it still makes time to slowly heighten the tension in the shaky beams of that aforementioned triangle, while interweaving a charming tale of Potini's efforts to teach a bunch of local kids competitive chess and get them to the national champs in Auckland.

Tying those elements together might have made for a clash of tones.

Trailer: The Dark Horse

The Dark Horse is a true story based on the life of Genesis Potini, a wildly charismatic, bipolar-suffering former chess champion. It stars Cliff Curtis and James Rolleston, and opens in New Zealand cinemas on July 31. Also appearing at the International Film Festival.

Except The Dark Horse earns its feelgood notes, it doesn't just push the buttons on them when required.

That said, there are a few threads that feel underdeveloped.

An idea that Potini was a wise mystical tohunga rather than someone whose differently-wired and often manic mind made him both a chess champ and unable to cope with the ordinary stuff of life is alluded to, but eventually left behind.

Still, it's a film about a man whose mind found a sort of refuge in chess. And when Curtis' Potini finds himself homeless, he curls up on the steps of the memorial on Gisborne's Kaiti Hill, an obelisk resembling a giant chess piece.

It's a nice touch. One of many in a film which is the best to come out of these shores in many a year.


Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Kirk Torrance, Miriama McDowell, Xavier Horan, Baz Te Hira, Wayne Hapi


James Napier Robertson


M (violence, offensive language & drug use)

Running time:

125 mins


Say kia ora to our next homegrown classic

- TimeOut