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New Zealand 2013
Directed by
James Napier Robertson
124 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4.5 stars

The Dark Horse

Synopsis: Based on the little known life of New Zealand chess champion, Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), The Dark Horse is the story of his post-champion years and his battle with mental illness. Released from a psychiatric hospital into the care of his brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi), Genesis forms a friendship with his nephew, Mana (James Rolleston),  who is soon to be pledged into his father’s Maori gang. Adrift and in search of positive experiences, Genesis comes across The Eastern Knights, a local kids chess club run by Noble (Kirk Torrance). After convincing Noble to let him work with them he becomes determined to take this group of fledgling players to the Junior Chess Championships and, in the process, finds new meaning to his life and the life of his nephew.

Cliff Curtis is such a terrific and versatile actor, as equally suited to gritty home-grown dramas like Once Were Warriors or a whimsical tale like Whale Rider as he is to his Hollywood outings in films like Fracture or Three Kings, or even further afield, Die Hard 4.0. Here he returns to the grim, hopeless and desperate suburban landscape of Once Were Warriors but in a very different character. His touching, truthful and triumphant performance as an unmoored man trying his best to deal with mental illness and reconnect with the world in the face of overwhelming odds is beautifully counterpointed by Rolleston who adds to the already impressive acting credentials he earned in the title role of 2010’s Boy

These two characters are equally vulnerable and so close to being lost, yet the spark of hope that Mana finds in Genesis might just be the saving of them both. It’s a powerful and moving story made stronger by a host of wonderful performances from the young people in the chess club and, most notably, from Hapi as Genesis’s dying brother and Torrance as the chess club’s charismatic leader. The determination of Akira to see Mana follow in his footsteps as a member of the aptly named Vagrants, despite the abuse and humiliation that comes with initiation into the gang, is hard to watch, especially when it’s clear that this is a father trying his best to provide his soon-to-be-orphaned son with the only kind of care and protection he understands. The thought that Genesis might offer the boy a more positive alternative is incomprehensible to him.

The Dark Horse is undoubtedly heart-warming and uplifting but it is so much more than that. Writer/director Robertson deftly walks the fine line between the triumph of the spirit and sentimental schmaltz to give us a portrayal of two men who stand together at a fork in the road. One path, the path of the dying father, leads to the perpetuation of an angry, violent, self-loathing life. The other path offers purpose, self esteem and a future. It seems an easy choice, but in this world there seems to be no such thing, and the suspense that comes with waiting to see which path each man will take is just one of the many pleasures of this remarkable film.




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