Directed by James Napier Robertson
Starring Cliff Curtis, James Rollestoe
The Dark Horse makes a brave choice right from the beginning: instead of making a biopic covering a man’s life, it just chooses one crucial slice of it and presents that. The result is a window into the life of chess champion Genesis Potini, a couple of months that affected his and many other lives.
Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis) has struggled with mental health issues for the majority of his life and has often been institutionalised because of it. Yet this is far from the only thing that defines him. Genesis has a brilliant mind for chess, one that saw him rise as a chess champion before the pressures took their toll on his health. In aiding his recovery and reconnecting to the community he seeks to take a group of disadvantaged children under his wing and prepare them for a national chess tournament in six weeks. This brings him into conflict not just with the kid’s parents (who are wary of his past) but his own brother, as his nephew (James Rolleston) seeks to forge his own future.
With its combination of elements, The Dark Horse manages to pitch its tone just about perfectly. With cute kids and an uplifting tale about overcoming mental health issues and poor socio-economic factors, it could easily slide into sentimentality, or with the themes of gang-related violence and the abandonment of those with mental health issues, it could slip the other way and become a very harrowing film. Instead The Dark Horse lands in the Goldilocks Zone, balancing its many issues and producing something that is entertaining, uplifting and thoughtful.
Much of this is due to Cliff Curtis’ (Whale Rider) excellent performance. His portrayal of Genesis is nuanced, layered and deeply moving. He is almost unrecognisable with his close cropped hair and broken teeth, bringing a physicality to the character that swings from childlike optimism to an iron resolve. The frequent and rapid verbalisation of racing thoughts and associated repetitive gestures could be very easily overplayed, but it is grounded by the contrasting moments of stillness in the character. Genesis feels like a real being, rather than a caricature created by an actors bag of tricks. James Rolleston (Boy) also does excellent work as the troubled nephew Mana, bringing vulnerability and false bravado to the role. The rest of the cast is a mix of professionals and amateurs granting a sense of authenticity to the piece.
A magical piece of alchemy that gets the balance of its various competing elements just right, The Dark Horse manages to deliver a fine piece of cinema to the screen. A compelling watch.
The Dark Horse screens at Joondalup Pines until Sunday, November 30, and at Somerville Auditorium UWA from Tuesday, December 2, until Sunday December 7 as part of Lotterywest Festival films. Go to perthfestival.com.au for more information.