The Dark Horse (4 stars)

The Dark Horse

Cliff Curtis astounds in a nuanced biopic of chess champion Genesis Potini

His presence in films like The Piano, Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider has made Cliff Curtis into a mark of quality for everything that is good in New Zealand cinema. The Dark Horse is no exception to that rule; Curtis gives the performance of his career as he gets to grips with the troubled mind and generous heart of charismatic, true-life speed chess champion Genesis 'Gen' Potini.

Curtis' physical transformation is as impressive as anything that De Niro achieved for Raging Bull. The traditionally svelte star gained four stone to capture the look of a man who resembled a cuddly bear. When we first see Potini he is making yet another fresh start, in the custody of his brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi); we learn that he has spent his life struggling with severe bipolar disorder.

A typical Hollywood film would subject us to a succession of flashbacks, offering revealing insights into his anguished past and family life. Writer-director James Napier Robertson goes for a less melodramatic approach, staying firmly in the present and focusing on Potini's decision to coach 'The Eastern Knights', a chess club for at-risk youth. He also tries to become a father figure to his nephew Mana (James Rolleston) and shows him that there is a world beyond the macho gang culture that threatens to claim him as another victim.

Rather than rushing towards celebrating the triumph of the underdog, The Dark Horse offers a more complex view of Potini and the way his gentle advocacy of non-violence and self improvement is such a direct challenge to more conventional and suffocating views of masculinity. That approach makes for a film where the human interest extends far beyond the triumphs and travails of the central character.

Selected release from Fri 3 Apr.

The Dark Horse

  • 4 stars
  • 2014
  • 2h 4min
  • 15
  • Directed by: James Napier Robertson
  • Written by: James Napier Robertson
  • Cast: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Kirk Torrance
  • UK release: 3 April 2015

Biopic of bipolar speed chess champion Genesis 'Gen' Potini (Curtis), who formed a chess club for at-risk youth. Curtis gives the performance of his career, gaining four stone to play the troubled and generous Potini, and the film's human interest extends far beyond the triumphs and problems of its troubled and generous…