The Dead Lands (3 stars)

The Dead Lands

Warring tribes are the focus of this entertaining Kiwi actioner from Toa Fraser

Fijian-British director Toa Fraser made 2008's Dean Spanley, a sweetly surreal, stiff-upper-lipped story of Edwardian Englishmen and resurrected dogs. It was a niche proposition, sure, but an oddly beautiful one all the same. After ballet drama Giselle (2013), Fraser has gone, if anything, even further off the wall with this tale of warring New Zealand tribes.

Set in the distant past, and performed entirely in Maori, The Dead Lands plays like an Antipodean Apocalypto – all fleeing figures lost in gorgeous landscapes. It begins with Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), the son of a rival chieftain, paying respect to the bones of his ancestors, while our hero, Hongi (James Rolleston) looks on. When Wirepa's respect-paying proves – how to put this – more faecal than strictly necessary, he accuses Hongi of defiling the site, and slaughters his entire tribe. The bulk of the film concerns Hongi's quest for vengeance, with the help of a fallen warrior (Lawrence Makoare from Lord of the Rings) he meets in the eponymous wilderness.

The New Zealand scenery is, as ever, spellbinding. Rolleston has an appealingly soulful presence, and Fraser is completely committed to his alluring other-world. But for all the skin-flaying and limb-lopping, it feels like heritage cinema, rather than something legitimately, bleedingly alive.

Besides Makoare's anachronistic sass ('Make a joke about their mother, that usually works for me!'), and the odd eyebrow-raising pronouncement ('I will fill your daughter's uterus with dirt!'), the dialogue is all eating, shitting and fighting, or some unholy combination of the three. Accurate it may be, but it renders Hongi and co characterless and hard to connect with. Plus it doesn't distinguish the film very much from the 1980s swords-and-sandals flicks that LOTR attempted to usurp. Although undoubtedly a worthy piece of indigenous action cinema – and how often can you say that? – The Dead Lands still feels like a haka without end.

Selected release from Fri 29 May.

The Dead Lands

  • 3 stars
  • 2014
  • 1h 48min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Toa Fraser
  • Written by: Glenn Standring
  • Cast: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makaore, Rena Owen
  • UK release: 29 May 2015

Set in New Zealand's distant past and performed entirely in Maori, the tale of Hongi (Rolleston), a young warrior who seeks vengeance against another tribe for the death of his father. Despite its commitment to its exotic setting it's oddly characterless and undistinguished.