There’s a precipice that lies just out of frame throughout James Napier Robertson’s absorbing drama, The Dark Horse (2014). It represents different things to different characters, but they are all skirting its edge precariously, lending an air of danger to what is ostensibly a conventional underdog/mentorship story. Inspired by the real life of speed-chess player Genesis Potini, the film’s focus may be his nascent affiliation with the Eastern Knights chess club, but raging around that are torrents of tensions both familial and psychological. Hung on the hulking shoulders of Cliff Curtis, the film intertwines the game – both on and off the board – with ideas of masculinity and traditional Maori mythology.
Genesis (‘Gen’ to his friends) is first encountered wandering through pouring rain – he sports a unusually shaved pate, a rack full of broken teeth and a brightly-coloured blanket wrapped around his bulky frame. Curtis gained sixty pounds for the part, but that is a tiny element of his commitment to what transpires to be a phenomenal performance. The actor may be best known for Once Were Warriors (1994) and Whale Rider (2002), or recognisable for a slew of other roles as various ethnicities in Hollywood, but this a truly transformative turn. From the moment he enters a small chess shop and begins to play both sides of a game – providing a muttered, babbling commentary – Curtis portrays Gen’s brilliance, and his difficulties, with the utmost conviction and compassion.
Effectively homeless and mentally ill, his role as mentor to disaffected kids is unlikely to be encouraged by social norms. Gen takes to it with relish but Robertson avoids choosing the path of least resistance, Curtis always retains a bubble of instability – he may not be aggressive or violent, but his lack of control over his behaviour is tangible. There is a combustible tension that never quite dissipates. Taught chess by his older brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi) as a child, it retains a magic for Gen, symbolically appropriating Maori cultural heritage and storytelling traditions. Chess is not just about strategy, but about a king weighed down by the responsibility of leading his tribe, and the ranks of warriors prepared to defend him.
The Eastern Knights is far from a boys club, but testosterone is abundant in Ariki’s home where his teenage son Mana (James Rolleston) is reticently preparing to be ‘patched’ into his father’s brutal biker gang. The intimate camerawork seems to echo Ariki’s assertion that there is little scope to change their fates – the gods sure as hell haven’t smiled on he and his brother – while a revelation only further enlivens an electric sibling dynamic. Hapi is a non-professional actor who valiantly holds the screen opposite Curtis’ towering performance, but this is definitely Gen’s film. His mental frailty and his search for inner strength are a constant source of riveting conflict. The deft and highly emotive handling of his condition and the wider ramifications of his story make The Dark Horse a lot more than merely the against-the-odds chess story that it may initially appear to be.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson