The Dark Horse is based on the true story of Genesis Potini, an unassuming hero in New Zealand. Genesis trained a group of disengaged kids from a run-down part of the city of Napier to compete at the National Chess Championships. He spent several years in and out of mental institutions, battling with severe bipolar disorder. Desperate to have one more chance at life on the outside, Gen manages to get himself released into the care of his gang-member brother Ariki. At first Gen wants to keep himself to himself, but soon sees that he needs to protect his nephew from being indoctrinated into his brother’s gang and following in the footsteps of other family members. He uses chess to reach out to at-risk young people, making the game a leveller and focus for them.
The beauty of the story, of course, lies not in the winning or losing of board games but in the connections that are made, the lives that are saved and the hope that is instilled in this group of kids who are on the verge of going off the rails. The story at first seems straightforward enough, but the execution is heartfelt and lacking in affectation, and the characters are nuanced and intriguing, meaning that powerful and poignant layers are revealed.
While it’s possible to compare The Dark Horse to Once Were Warriors, this film presents an uplifting respite from the bleakness of gang culture, and offers its characters some hope of redemption. Director James Napier Robertson is a relative newcomer, but his work is skilled. The performances he brings out of young James Rolleston (who starred in the charming Boy and did impressive work in the stunning The Dead Lands), Kirk Torrance and Miriama McDowell are just spot on. But it’s the lead performance from Cliff Curtis as Genesis Potini that has, quite rightly, been winning accolades and awards.
The Dark Horse was the opening night film at the 2014 New Zealand International Film Festival. It played at festivals including the Toronto International Film Festival 2014 and Rotterdam International Film Festival, as well as having successful general releases in a variety of territories. Cliff Curtis took home several awards for his brilliant performance at the New Zealand Film Awards and the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
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