James Napier Robertson’s inspiring, biographical drama is a triumph and another huge step forward for New Zealand cinema.
I’ve been on a bit of a New Zealand film kick recently and I didn’t even know it. What We Do in the Shadows is hands down one of my top five films of 2015 and that film’s charm made me reach out to other offerings from the Kiwis.
We all love Flight of the Conchords. Rarely have I met someone that has seen it and has a negative thing to say about it. The charm of Jemaine Clement and Brett McKenzie translated beautifully to the show and that seemed to shine a light on the small country who had already been cultivating their own unique style of dead pan humor for years before.
Jemaine Clement’s best friend and writing partner Taika Waititi had already received Oscar attention in 2004 with his short film Two Cars, One Night which would lead to the director’s magnificent film Boy. That film showcased the unique talent that New Zealand has to offer with performances by James Rolleston, Rachel House, and Waititi himself. In The Dark Horse we have the chance to see some of that talent in impressive dramatic roles.
The Dark Horse based on the real life story of New Zealand chess savant Genesis Potini who suffered sever bipolar disorder for much of his life. In an attempt to balance his own disorder, he focused on sharing his knowledge of the game with distressed youths to keep them off the streets and away from gangs and drugs. Along with his friends, he founded the Eastern Knights chess club and created a home base for these children.
In the film, the character of Genesis Potini is portrayed by Cliff Curtis, an amazingly talented NZ actor with a solid body of work. For the film, director James Napier Robertson asked Curtis to gain 60 pounds, wear a half shaved head, and sport a missing teeth mouthpiece to truly portray the look of a man suffering from severe mental illness. According to the director, Curtis even stayed in character for the entirety of the shoot, thus adding a further authentic quality about his performance.
He feels crazy. Mama has dealt with psych patients for the past five years and was shocked by the accuracy of Cliff Curtis’ portrayal of a bipolar man. However, Curtis’ performance is not the only one that should be applauded, the upcoming James Rolleston (who was Boy in Boy) plays Mana, Genesis’ nephew and knocks it out of the park.
Rolleston embraces the angst and anger that lives within a young teen being exposed to a lifestyle not fit for most adults. Mana lives in a distressed home with his father who is the leader of a local biker gang and is next in line to be inducted into the criminal lifestyle that he has been surrounded with his entire life. Mana tries to be tough in the presence of his father’s gang, but just below the surface is a 14 year old boy who wants nothing to do with this life and just wants to escape.
James Napier Robertson has created a classic film packed with so much emotion and triumph that is clearly conveyed on the screen in abundance. The character’s struggles are real ones, with true consequences. The performances are beyond transformative. The fact that this director and lead actor took home the Golden Space Needle at this year’s film festival further reinforces the true talent of New Zealand filmmaking and I look forward to see what the future hold for the tiny but talented nation.