'The Dark Horse': Toronto Review

The Dark Horse Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

The Dark Horse Still - H 2014

Cliff Curtis gives the performance of his career in this moving portrait of a New Zealand legend.

The true story of an institutionalized New Zealand man who turns a group of at-risk youth into budding chess champs

The second Toronto title in which the game of chess plays a prominent role (the other is Ed Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice), New Zealand’s The Dark Horse is an emotionally potent story of redemption anchored by a heart-piercing lead performance from Cliff Curtis.

Portraying the late Genesis Potini, a psych ward patient turned local hero whose story first attracted attention in a 2003 documentary, Curtis, best known for his roles in Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors, commands the screen in a quietly affecting turn that is certain to attract awards attention.

So is the film itself, which has already become a sensation in its home country since opening the end of July and has the affecting reach to pack a universal appeal.

A former chess prodigy who has spent a great deal of his bipolar life in mental institutions, Potini is released into the care of his older brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi), a gang member whose violent lifestyle doesn’t bode well for either Genesis or Ariki’s teenage son, Mana (James Rolleston).

It isn’t long before Genesis finds himself back out on the street, but he finds salvation teaching chess to a group of displaced Gisborne, NZ, kids, contending he can turn them into worthy competitors in time for an upcoming national tournament in Auckland.

Unsurprisingly, there isn’t any shortage of roadblocks in his path, including his own mental health challenges and those of his timid nephew, who is about to be “patched” into his father’s gang by one of its more sadistic members.

On the surface, while the main character might appear to share something in common with the protagonists in films like Shine and A Beautiful Mind, director-writer Robertson has no intent of romanticizing mental illness or adhering to tired, triumph-over-adversity conventions.

There’s a grit and a dread that hang over this underdog tale, which infers that any potential happy endings will be bittersweet at best.

As Potini, Curtis demonstrates a commitment that goes well beyond physical transformation.

Aside from his very noticeable weight gain, there’s a shuffle to his gait and a glazed-over despondency in his eyes that reflects those years of heavily medicated treatments.

That silently searing, painfully honest performance aside, there’s very capable support from Rolleston as the abused nephew and, notably, novice Hapi in a raw, convincing turn as Gen’s conflicted brother.

Another standout is Denson Baker’s cinematography, which bathes the faces of the characters in contrasting shadow and light and occasionally plays an unexpected burst of color against the otherwise dreary, foreboding backdrop.

Production company: Four Knights Film

Cast: Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Kirk Torrance, Xavier Horan, Wayne Hapi

Director-screenwriter: James Napier Robertson

Producer: Tom Hern

Executive producers: Cliff Curtis, Timothy White

Director of photography: Denson Baker

Production designer: Kim Sinclair

Costume designer: Kristin Seth

Editor: Peter Roberts

Composer: Dana Lund

Sales: Seville International

No rating, 124 minutes