Review: The Dark Horse

James Napier Robertson’s factual-based drama looks like it might slip into the clichés of the ‘inspiring teacher’ sub-genre (think Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds and the like), but the difference here is that the inspiring teacher is, shall we say, seriously psychologically shaky.

James Napier Robertson’s factual-based drama looks like it might slip into the clichés of the ‘inspiring teacher’ sub-genre (think Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds and the like), but the difference here is that the inspiring teacher is, shall we say, seriously psychologically shaky. Drawn from the true story of Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis in a career-best performance), this introduces our hero Shine­-style as he emerges from the rain to play chess in an antique store, before being forcibly removed by the authorities. The bipolar, heavily-medicated Genesis has been in and out of psychiatric institutions his whole life, and he’s soon to be released into the care of his brother Ariki (first-time actor Wayne Hapi, excellent), a bad idea indeed as Ariki’s the leader of a gang of scary bikers, The Vagrants, and his Gisborne home is their headquarters. Gen moves in and befriends his nephew Mana (James Rolleston of Taika Waititi’s Boy, now a teen), who’s being ‘hardened up’ to become a Vagrant, while also trying to get a local chess club fired up for the championships, despite being continually told to stop giving the kids such false hope. As those around him fear, are Gen’s chess passion (he used to be the famed ‘The Dark Horse’) and burning need to believe in something actually a sign that his demons are returning once more? A hugely chunked-up Curtis, a Kiwi actor who’s worked all over the world but returned home to star in and help produce Robertson’s film, is masterly here, grounding this low-budget production and providing all we need to know about the complex and troubled Gen in a wonderfully quiet, subtle, funny and sometimes daringly crazy characterisation. He’s the key reason to catch this small, moving but hard-edged drama, and he more than sees you past the unmistakable fact that the game of chess is awfully uncinematic. The Dark Horse (M) is in cinemas now

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