The Dark Horse
Directed by James Napier Robertson
Starring Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Kirk Torrance, Sia Trokenheim and Andrew Grainger
One-time Maori speed-chess champ, Genesis Potini, lives with a bi-polar disorder and must overcome prejudice and violence in the battle to save his struggling chess club, his family and ultimately, himself.
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★★★★½ review by DirkH on Letterboxd
I watched the Dark Horse in my local arthouse cinema with my wife. They also serve some amazing food there. We had fish soup followed by a huge redfish fillet on a bed of spicy paella, finishing it off with fresh strawberries with vanilla ice cream and strawberry/vodka whipped cream. After dinner we strolled to screen three, taking our wine and beer with us.
And after the film was over we looked at each other and shared a thought. That dinner had a nasty aftertaste all of a sudden. Realizing you live a comfortable life can sometimes be a slap in the face. I welcome those 'two feet back on the ground' moments, especially when provided by something as beautiful as this film.
The Dark Horse drives on unflinching sincerity, turning this story that reads like a dime a dozen 'inspirational true story' into a painful account of a broken man transcending himself and his surroundings. It is a beautiful and ugly film, much like its protagonist. Genesis Potini is given life by Cliff Curtis whose performance ranks among my favourite of the past year or so. He manages to avoid all the pitfalls that come with portraying someone with a handicap, practically always choosing restraint over 'acting', making his performance feel true and unbelievably impressive.
I loved the beauty of the rich Maori culture and the way it lay like a blanket over the game of chess, yet was shocked by the ugliness of the fate of how that culture seems to be lost amongst alcoholism, poverty and crime. I loved the beauty of Genesis' mind, passion and determination and feared for him when the ugliness of his disease crawled to the surface.
The Dark Horse is on paper a 'been there done that' affair. But in reality it is a gripping, funny and, yes, inspirational story about breaking from self imposed circles and trying to be who you want to be.
The Dark Horse reminded me that I shouldn't take things for granted and that is always a good thing.
★★★★★ review by Tarryn-tino on Letterboxd
To say that I loved this film, would be a complete and utter understatement. Sitting here the day after watching it, just thinking about it, brings back that heavy feeling of sadness back to my chest.
Where to even start...
Cliff Curtis, what an absolute legend. He is without a doubt, the most talented New Zealand actor that has existed and he totally out did himself with his performance as Genesis Potini, the man who gave some stability to the lives of some very troubled children. His performance was totally gut-wrenching, with that raw emotion that just completely over took me. IMO he definitely deserves a nod for an Oscar nom. Up and coming actor James Rolleston was also great and if he keeps on giving performances like that, then he will go a long way. All of the cast made the whole film a pleasure to watch.
Stories like The Dark Horse just break my heart, especially when they are based on true events and even more so when they are set in my country. The stories feel all too familiar and too close to home. I think the whole Dark Horse team handled this project and all the issues that were raised in the film with the utmost care and respect.
As I said on twitter last night, it's films like The Dark Horse that make me so proud of NZ cinema. Fantastic!
★★★★½ review by Chris Hormann on Letterboxd
A revelatory, tour de force performance from Cliff Curtis as the titular Dark Horse, in a story told with raw emotional honesty. The NZ International Film Festival has started for another year and I'm so proud of this Kiwi film which I'm sure will hold its own amongst the heavyweight selections on the programme.
★★★★½ review by Arlo Mclean on Letterboxd
Sublimely acted and executed, ‘The Dark Horse’ puts you in the shoes of someone living in small town, gang populated New Zealand and the affects that that can have on someone’s life. Cliff Curtis is outstanding and his performance makes you look through the eyes of someone suffering through a mental illness. Highly recommend to educate someone about what really goes on in areas that you don’t think about.
Fun Fact: It’s a true story too!
★★★★½ review by lobsta on Letterboxd
It's tough to not be swept up into The Dark Horse partly because from a technical perspective it's simple done right, there's nothing flashy about it yet it looks and feels exactly like it should. It also manages to be both heartwarming and terrifying as the dual nature of Maoridom is shown through the family.
Any concerns over the chess / sports movie stereotypes should be abandoned as the game is used marginally to illuminate aspects of Maori culture that when displayed this way, really connect with the game of chess and the more difficult aspects of culture. Cliff Curtis really brought it here absolutely knocking it out of the park, with a role-type that is very difficult to not overplay and become the joke.
I also want to mention how tactfully and thoughtfully the film handles stereotypes. He is shown as someone with mental illness but his problems are that, he can take medicine, he can get better, but in the context of society it's far more difficult to maintain "stability" especially for those in a compromised position. I was very happy to see that taking the pills was not shown as a vice or virtue but a way of regain some control over his life.
3rd Kiwi film of the year (the other two being Housebound, What We do in the Shadows), do yourself a favour and check em out, all three of them really excel and deserve to be on some best of the year lists. What a great year for NZ!
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