The Dark Horse
Writer/director; James Napier Robertson
The Dark Horse is based on the true story of Genesis Potini, a Maori ex-speed chess champion who suffered from bi-polar disorder.
In the film he has just been released from an institution into the custody of his gang-patched brother Ariki. Rather than rejoin the gang he wants to do something meaningful with his life, so he begins to help a group of young people at a local chess club.
The chess board and the game itself become metaphors for Genesis’ internal conflicts, as well as his battles with the local community and gang culture. When he sets a goal for the club members of winning the New Zealand Junior Chess Championship, they eventually find themselves up against students from the nation’s classier schools.
Genesis’ challenges also include helping his nephew Mana, who is on the verge of becoming a gang member, and advising him on which move to make in that game.
There are many elements that could have reduced the film to a cliché-ridden tale about gang life and the out-of-control spiral of disenfranchised youth. But not in this film.
Genesis could have been portrayed as a truly heroic character who brings a new energy to Maori youth and transforms entire communities. But not in this film.
Many New Zealand films suffer from having dialogue which attempts to be everyday and inspiring but ends up sounding false. But not in this film. James Napier Robinson's dialogue advances the narrative, explores character and creates emotional drama without being forced or laboured. The characters he has created have an honesty and realism that is emotionally palpable, giving us a truly memorable and moving film.
As played by Cliff Curtis, Genesis is a brilliant mixture of intelligence, understanding and caring, wrapped in a fragile frame. He may look like a dark horse but inside he is a white knight coming to put things right. He is not the great hero of fantasy films but the flawed hero who must deal with the realities of a cruel life.
James Rolleston (the young star of Boy) gives an agonizing portrayal of a young man caught between following the orders of his father or grasping the opportunities offered by Genesis. As Mana's patched father Ariki, Wayne Hapi's performance swings from the sympathetic to the odious, while Miriam McDowell and Kurt Torrance do thoughtful work as Genesis’ supporters and guardian angels.
One of the film's only problems resides at the core of the story. Genesis Potini inspires the group of children to ramp up their game and we can see that Potini has his own approach to the game in the way he protects the centre and sees outcomes (much the same as his approach to life). But this never seems to be conveyed to the children and so we gain the impression they have acquired their chess skills by osmosis rather than learning.