Based on true events, The Dark Horse tells a dramatic and moving story about a man and his chess board. Having been in and out of mental institutions for most of his life, Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), an ex-competitive chess extraordinaire, has been allowed leave from the most recent clinic on the condition he takes his medication and stays with his brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi) and Ariki’s son Mana (James Rolleston). But Ariki’s way of life is less than ideal, being one of the ringleaders of a violent gang, to which Mana is soon to be a part of. Unable to handle the lifestyle, Genesis finds himself homeless, on a downward spiral that could land him right back inside the mental institution.
That is until he discovers a local chess club, populated by a bunch of rag-tag kids whose home lives range from bad to worse. Wanting to focus himself and these kids on something positive, he promises to coach them to victory in the National Chess Championship in Auckland, despite the fact that most of them can barely tell their kings from their pawns. But it is Mana that truly needs saving as his initiation into his father’s gang becomes more and more brutal, which becomes infinitely more difficult after Ariki bans Mana from spending time with Genesis, fearing Genesis’ mental illness will rub off on his son.
At the helm of this film is a downright phenomenal performance by Cliff Curtis (Training Day, Whale Rider) as the passionate, rambling and caring Genesis. Curtis is almost unrecognisable in this role, as if he has transformed himself into another person entirely, to the point where it doesn’t even feel like acting anymore – it feels like real life. Curtis completely steals the show in the case of The Dark Horse, which is no mean feat considering that all of the performances here are stand outs. James Rolleston as Mana is an incredibly talented young actor, as are all of the child actors that make up the chess club. With a cast comprised of many relatively unknown actors, it just goes to show that you don’t need A-list celebrities to make a good film.
What’s especially commendable about The Dark Horse is that it steers clear from a lot of the cliches that most of the films with the determined-teacher, disadvantaged-kids premise continually overuse. It is a very original take on a plot line that could be considered play-out, and director James Napier Robertson manages to keep this incredibly moving, devastating and inspirational story very human at heart, with characters who are immensely flawed, but all the more lovable for it. My only qualms with the movie lie with the pacing, which at times I felt moved a little too slowly, especially during scenes when there wasn’t a whole lot going on visually. Don’t get me wrong, some scenes were beautifully shot (the opening scene especially) and cleverly put together, but there’s no denying that chess isn’t the most dynamic of games. I will also warn that those unfamiliar with the New Zealand accent may struggle to understand what is being said, especially because many of the main characters tended to mumble.
But despite this, The Dark Horse remains a very stirring, and in my opinion, important film to watch. With rave reviews so far, some of which claiming this film as one of the best to ever come out of New Zealand, The Dark Horse is sure to be well-received.
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