There’s an old maxim that states there are only seven stories in literature and film and it may very well be true (see Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories) but, as regular cinema-goers can attest, fresh blood can breathe new life into an old idea.
In The Dark Horse, writer/director James Napier Robertson (I’m Not Harry Jenson) has done this in spades. It’s certainly not a new story – an unlikely hero overcomes adversity and, in doing so, provides strength and a new sense of purpose to his immediate community – but Napier Robertson has told it with such a light, nuanced touch that it’s easy to forget you’ve seen it all before. And to add to its strength, it’s all true.

When we first meet Genesis Potini, aka Gen, (Cliff Curtis – Whale Rider, Once Were Warriors) we quickly learn that he has been in and out of mental hospitals in recent years but is now ready for life in the wider community provided a family member will take him in. Reluctantly, his gang leader brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi) agrees to shelter him but it’s not an environment that provides the security Gen needs. The house is occupied day and night by Ariki’s heavy-duty ‘bros’, who are clearly not to be messed with. The only kindred spirit he finds is his young nephew, Mana (James Rolleston – Boy), who’s about to turn 15 and get ‘patched’ into his father’s gang.

Searching for a cause to keep his mind from wandering, Gen, once a local chess champion, stumbles on a local youth club and, in a flash of either madness or inspiration, takes it upon himself to lead the kids to the National Chess Championships. “I can see the end coming”, you might say, but don’t, because this story doesn’t take the traditional route to its conclusion and there are many surprising moves to be played before “check mate” is declared.

This is the role of Cliff Curtis’s career and he ably rises to the challenge, bulking up considerably to play Gen and inhabiting the mind and body of this gentle, wounded soul. Apparently he also stayed in character throughout the shoot, a big ask when dealing with a character suffering from mental illness, but the results are up on screen for all to see and, in the words of Napier Robertson, “he blew it out of the park”.

James Rolleston proves that his winning performance in Boy was no fluke, bringing great truth and depth to the conflicted child/man Mana, and newcomer Wayne Hapi shines as his dread-locked father, Ariki, also highly troubled by the changes taking place around him. They are aided by magnificent performances in all the other major and minor roles, from both adult and child actors, who seem to inhabit their Gisborne environment as though this was a documentary rather than a drama.

Denson Baker’s (Oranges and Sunshine) cinematography and Peter Roberts’s (The Most Fun You Can Have Dying) editing are both subtle and unobtrusive, taking a back seat to allow the delicate and restrained script to stand out. And it is the script that really is at the heart of the film; it could so easily have gone over the top, given the material, but it is to Napier Robertson’s great credit that he always knows when to pull back and not to beat us over the head. He treats his audience as adults.

The Dark Horse is an inspiring film that deserves to be seen far and wide; one of the best of the year, not only from New Zealand but anywhere.


Previewed at Paramount Theatrette, Pyrmont, NSW on Wednesday 5 November 2014

Cliff Curtis
James Rolleston
Kirk Torrance
Wayne Hapi
Xavier Horan

James Napier Robertson

James Napier Robertson

New Zealand


124 minutes

November 20, 2014
The Dark Horse (2014) on IMDb