Film Review: The Dark Horse

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The story of Genesis Potini has entered into common NZ folklore thanks to the success of The Dark Horse, a bio-flick exploring the life and times of this, until recently, unheralded chess prodigy.

A triumph at the local box office, the film has garnered rave reviews and is set for a big international rollout this year.

I missed it on the big screen but was very excited to find it in the new release section of my local DVD Rental Store the other day and sat down with friends to see what all the fuss was about.

Potini suffered from an extreme form of bipolar disorder, a condition defined by cyclical swings between states of elation and depression. Potini brief career as a champion chess player was undone by his inability to handle stress, a major trigger for his unfortunate predilections.

While Potini suffered greatly, he also possessed great gifts, not least of which was his ability to make great leaps of faith, and here lies the films great strength, its frank and profoundly insightful examination of an affliction that is often misconceived by outsiders. A condition marked by emotional pain and mental dysfunction but not without its benefits.

The film is centred on Potini’s struggles to maintain equilibrium while trying to manage familial and social relationships. The scenes illustrating the delusions that threaten to overwhelm Potini at any moment are harrowing, as are the scenes illustrating his extreme emotional responses to the events that define the movie: the gang affiliations of his immediate family and the local chess club, which is more a secure oasis for children from troubled homes than a serious educational facility.

It is within the secure confines of the chess club that we encounter the films most poignant moments: Potini giving the enthusiastic children validation and direction and inflaming their spirits with dreams of possibilities.

The amateur cast of local Gisborne kids are rowdily joyous and leap at the new frontiers Potini’s vision offers. In these moments I sat grinning, reminiscing on the pleasures of childhood discovery and remembering the mentors who gave direction to my own youthful exuberance.

With Potini’s immediate family we find ourselves entering “Once Were Warriors’ territory, simmering violence laced with hopelessness, a bleak landscape Potini, (once again demonstrating his unique gifts), navigates with courage as he seeks to rescue his young nephew from the dire fate of a life bound to the East Coast Gang’s and their underworld criminality.

As the film progresses Potini leads his young charges and their dubious caregivers toward the National Youth Chess Championships in Auckland, and while the film threatens to spill over into deliriously sentimental Disney territory it never quite does, holding it back just enough for us to laugh, smile and share the joy without having to endure lashings of sickly sweet Hollywood type nonsense.

Despite the distressing narrative backdrop that underscores much of the movie, in the end it is family style film: educational, informative, inspiring and deeply felt.

Cliff Curtis in the lead role is astonishing. Phrases like ‘tour de force’ spring to mind, as do words like ‘commitment’ and ‘conviction’. Though Potini left this life early, Curtis’s performance has done his legacy a great service. If this were indeed a Hollywood film, the line ‘Cliff Curtis and Oscar’ would be on many lips.

I might quibble with some aspects of the film; a little more judicious script editing might have been in order, but really, what the hell. This is another great NZ story well told.

Movies with heart this sincere are few and far between.

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