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Dark Horse, The


Stars: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Niwa Whatuira, Miriama McDowell, Wayne Hapi, Kirk Torrance

Director: James Napier Robertson

Elements of other underdog success stories resonate through this feelgood/feelbad but resolutely uncommercial true-life film centred on Genesis Potini (Curtis), a Maori from a poorer quarter of New Zealand who became a chess champ, then 'went away' when the stress of competition affected his fragile mental state.

We meet him on 'parole' from mental hospital, to which he is swiftly returned, then released in the custody of his thug brother (Hapi), a key member of hefty leather-jacketed villains who casually walk into homes and, after beating the occupants, rob them.

Still on three different medications and chattering at a rat-a-tat pace continually to himself, Genesis finds an outlet for his nervous energy in a kids' club run by his cousin (Torrance). Quickly drawing them into his world of chess - one, Michael (Whatuira) is already very good - Genesis also recruits his brother's son Mana (Rolleston), to the violent displeasure of bro, who, already inducting the boy into his gang, crashes the club and smashes Genesis to the floor.

Much of the story follows a predictable arc - there's a chess comp the club enters, but a spanner's soon thrown into the works when one of the kids' mums spots Genesis is sleeping rough, and pulls her son out.

The final chess competition is well staged, although it's doubtful Genesis' star player would have been allowed to continue following his coach's 'helpful' outbursts on the sidelines as portrayed here; but the film is any case much too long for its theme, the final sequence in particular being agonisingly protracted. Curtis is terrific as the inspirational Gen, but then this reliable actor almost always is.

David Quinlan

New Zealand 2014. UK Distributor: Koch Media. Colour by Fuman.
122 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 3, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 1, Swearing 0.

Review date: 30 Mar 2015