Release date: 3 April 2015
Running time: 124 min
Director: James Napier Robertson
Starring: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Kirk Torrance, James Napier Robertson
A story of a fallen chess champion. An examination of bipolar disorder. A heart-warming tale of a group of scrappy youngsters making an unlikely splash in a competition. A hard-hitting family drama. A harsh look at gang culture. Writer/Director James Napier Robertson takes quite a gamble trying to fit so much in to The Dark Horse, his touching biopic of unsung New Zealand hero Genesis Potini. When tackling so many topics, there is always the risk of diluting everything with a lack of focus. It is very much to the director’s credit that he is able to thread together all these elements of a remarkable life to produce such a well rounded film.
Cliff Curtis plays the larger than life Genesis: a one time chess prodigy whose struggles with bipolar have seen him spend his life bouncing between living rough on the streets and lengthy stays in hospital. Initially we find him released into the care of his estranged brother, gang member Ariki, and his son Mana. Staying in the club house of a raucous biker gang isn’t exactly conducive to Genesis’ recovery, but he finds relief in volunteering at the Eastern Knights, a chess club for the at-risk youth of his community. It is a relationship that proves to be mutually beneficial to coach and students, giving Genesis a purpose and the kids an alternative to a life of crime.
The story of an inspirational mentor helping a group of troubled youths is a common one, but Robertson’s naturalistic approach keeps it away from the genre’s common pitfalls. There are no overplayed stereotypes or ham-fisted attempts at melodrama, just honest and frank depictions of the lives these kids face. Genesis doesn’t offer any implausible, overnight solutions to their problems, but uses chess – intertwined with Maori stories from their heritage – to provide an outlet to express themselves in a positive way. It helps when the performances are so strong across the board. Cliff Curtis went method in his preparation for playing Genesis, gaining over 60lbs in the process. It was undoubtedly a struggle to live in the role of such a troubled man for the entirety of filming, but the benefits are there on-screen for all to see. Curtis is a revelation here, constantly on the edge of mania but managing to keep it together for the good of his young protégés. Rarely has a cinematic mentor been so vulnerable and human.
It is remarkable that his performance does not hijack the entire proceedings, Curtis is equally matched by his supporting cast. James Rolleston provides the perfect foil as Genesis’ nephew Mana. Being groomed to join his father’s gang, it is a spot on performance. Lashing out at his uncle at first, but as the pair grow closer, the cracks begin to show in his tough guy act. Newcomer Wayne Hapi is equally impressive as Genesis’ brother. An actual former gang member, Hapi is electric in his role, adding real danger as well as surprising depth to a character that could easily have been a one-dimensional caricature.
The young cast that make up the Eastern Knights also deserve a huge amount of praise for delivering such seemingly effortless performances. Their meetings are played out with just the right amount of playful piss-taking to bring some humour to proceedings, but they also handle the dramatic material with impressive ease. These well crafted exchanges are testament to Robertson’s fine balancing act, addressing many important themes and treating them all with the respect they deserve. He has succeeded in making a film that is disturbing, charming, intelligent and entirely gripping. A dark horse indeed.