The true story of New Zealand chess champion Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), a man who, despite having to face challenges on his own, finds purpose teaching chess to the children in his community in the hope of helping them avoid a life of crime and violence.
Genius and mental illness can feed off each other—if you’re to believe a strong tradition of films like Shine and A Brilliant Mind. But the beauty of The Dark Horse, a New Zealand drama written and directed by James Napier Robertson (I’m Not Harry Jenson) based on the story of real life bi-polar chess champion Genesis ‘Gen’ Potini, is that the illness depicted here is a huge obstacle. It’s a persistent cloud without a silver lining. Which is not to say the film is grim and humourless, merely that it feels realistic. The triumphs of its characters are always provisional—much like real life.
Gen is played with utter conviction by Maori actor Cliff Curtis (Whale Rider, Once Were Warriors). He totally inhabits the role of a man who is in and out of psychiatric institutions and struggling to maintain equilibrium. Carrying bulky weight, with his head half-shaven and front teeth knocked out, Gen is a gentle soul with a tough backstory. The former chess champion, escaping from a mental hospital, shuffles the streets with Crocs on his feet and an old patchwork quilt around his shoulders, muttering to himself in a monologue that beats with anxiety. He’s only allowed to be released into the custody of a close relative. The sole candidate is his reluctant bikie brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi). Ariki lives in a volatile mess with his 14-year-old son, Mana (James Rolleston, nearly grown up now after appearing as the lead in Boy).
Gen battles to find a place within the depressed Maori community of small town Gisborne (six hours east of Auckland), eventually convincing an old friend, Noble (Kirk Torrance), to let him teach chess to a youth group of disadvantaged kids. Wary to raise their hopes, Noble sternly admonishes Gen to “Take your meds and get your sleep! Don’t let them down.” The risk of letting everyone down hangs heavily over the film, with hallucinations, homelessness and relapses always imminent.
Some of the most beautiful and funny scenes capture the exuberance of the children as they learn to play the ‘game of kings’. Gen teaches them strategy with an infusion of Maori legend, combining their own inspiring warrior history with the discipline of the game. It should be noted that the New Zealand accents are pretty heavy; it’s understandable that the film premiered at Toronto this year with subtitles.
Shot by Denson Baker (The Black Balloon, The Waiting City), The Dark Horse sometimes feels in need of a little more light, though perhaps this is fitting for a semi-tragic story set in the Land of the Long White Cloud. The focus is appropriately kept firmly on the characters, with an emphasis on close-ups, though there are some gorgeous scenes shot from the top of a hill, a chess game played on a monument overlooking the lights of the town.
The story builds to two climaxes: the rag-tag chess team travelling to the big city to compete in a private school-dominated tournament; and Gen’s quest to save his troubled nephew from the criminal life of the bikie gang, whose vile manhood initiations have already begun. The handling of these two crises is perhaps a little clumsy, leaving many unanswered questions. At over two hours long, the film doesn’t quite deliver the emotional payoff we’re expecting. Nevertheless, it’s a genuinely moving story of a real life hero who lived with his demons, while also changing the lives of thousands of children.