The Dark Horse ***
Dir: James Napier Robertson. With: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Kirk Torrance, Miriama McDowell, James Napier Robertson, Wayne Hapi. 15 cert, 124 min
The Kiwi biopic The Dark Horse opens with a hulking, shawled figure taking refuge from a rainstorm in an antiques shop. Maintaining a furious stream-of-consciousness babble throughout, he initiates an especially quickfire game of speed chess, swiftly drawing a gawping crowd. The figure is Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), and if you were confronted by a man built like Jonah Lomu yet displaying Kasparov-like levels of mental agitation, you’d be compelled to gawp, too. James Napier Robertson’s film forms a very decent attempt to pick up the pieces of this troubled yet ultimately triumphant life and restore them to order before us.
One precedent here would be 1996’s Shine: by all accounts, the bipolar Potini found reassurance in the chessboard’s blacks and whites, much as the earlier film’s David Helfgott did in those of the keyboard. Yet Robertson has another, useful angle, grasping Potini’s outsider status as a way into a macho strain of Maori culture. If the mind turns to that 1994 breakthrough Once Were Warriors during early scenes in the dead-end halfway house Potini shares with his gang-affiliated brother (Wayne Hapi), that’s partly because so few representations of Maori life have reached us since then, partly because the milieu is evoked with equal conviction.
We fear contrivance setting in when Genesis the gentle giant starts coaching local youngsters ahead of the New Zealand Junior Chess Championship – nudging them, as us, towards an understanding there are peaceable ways to wage war – yet the drama proves far less schematic than expected. (Not least during the final showdown, where Genesis’s mutterings start to irk the judges.) Robertson gives himself and his actors time to ponder the board and build convincing relationships and tensions: he’s especially deft around his younger performers, allowing them to register as distinct, often defiant personalities – pawns with a purpose.
Such projects have, however, to be organised around a king – and Robertson finds one in Curtis, oft cast for ethnically indeterminate villainy (Training Day), yet wearing his heaviness lightly here, letting us hear the pills rattling inside the bulk. The Dark Horse isn’t blind to the stigmas attached to schizophrenia – it notes community elders’ resistance to having a shaven-headed transient watch over their offspring – but it’s also careful to place Genesis in his rightful context, as one among many influences, several far less stable than he. After a week of troubling mental health narratives elsewhere, it’s a relief to encounter one this enlightened, and enlightening.
The Dark Horse opens in selected cinemas from today.