You don’t need to know anything about chess, New Zealand or Genesis Potini to fall under the spell of “The Dark Horse”.
This may have as much to do with the real-life Potini as with the actor who becomes him in this loving portrait: “Fear the Walking Dead” star Cliff Curtis. His immersive portrayal makes Potini fascinating and unpredictable in every frame of “The Dark Horse”.
The real guy was just as interesting. It was a 2003 documentary about the New Zealand chess champ (nicknamed the Dark Horse) that inspired writer-director James Napier Robertson to give Potini’s story narrative treatment.
But it’s Curtis who brings Potini to life. Compelling and authentic, lumbering and gentle, wise and innocent — the actor and his character are inseparable in this film. It’s a tour de force performance that captivates from the opening scene.
We first see Gen, as he’s known, wearing a colorful blanket and toothless grin in a rainstorm. He walks into an antique shop, mumbling in Maori and English as he starts playing a chess game against himself, narrating every move. He ends up in a mental hospital — a return trip, it turns out. Gen has bipolar disorder, and he doesn’t always take his meds.
He seeks help from his brother, Ariki (first time actor Wayne Hapi), who reluctantly takes him in. As a leader of the Vagrants street gang, Ariki’s hands — and house — are already full. He’s focused on bringing his teenage son, Mana (James Rolleston), into the gang, and suggests Gen stay out of their way.
He keeps busy by volunteering with the Eastern Knights, a neighborhood chess club for kids who might otherwise be on the streets after school. With his bursts of manic energy and deep love of the game, Gen is a natural teacher. He connects the chess pieces to characters in Maori lore as he explains their motivations and movement patterns. The kids adore him and it motivates him to stay on schedule with his sleep and his medicine. He promises to take them to the national chess championships in Auckland.
Mana shows interest in his uncle’s chess club, but his father forbids the distraction. Gen secretly allows his nephew to join anyway, threatening friction in the family that would upend Gen’s fragile mental state.
The real Potini saw chess as a great equalizer among people and practical way to solve problems: he believed anyone could learn to play, and the skills needed to figure things out in the game also worked in everyday life. He worked earnestly to manage his bipolar disorder, in part by intentionally focusing on positive ways to contribute, like teaching chess to kids so they might imagine a life beyond their crime-ridden neighborhoods.
Curtis embodies this struggle with such sincerity and compassion that he’s impossible not to root for. His Gen is the pot-bellied, toothless, eccentric hero you never knew you always wanted.
Gen is such a big-hearted character that his story is more than just a portrait of overcoming mental illness or a tale of a loving mentor taking his rag-tag team to the top. It’s a reminder of our shared humanity — things like chess and movies can unite us — and, as humans, we can choose to aim for the positive, regardless of our mental, physical or geographical circumstances.
“The Dark Horse”, a Broad Green Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language throughout and drug use”. Running time: 125 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
LOS ANGELES/LONDON: Mark Webber (“Green Room”), Rachel Hurd-Wood (“An American Haunting”) and Lorant Deutsch (“The Visitors: Bastille Day”) have signed on to star in chiller “Labirintus”, which is directed by “The Howling” and “Gremlins” helmer Joe Dante. Goldcrest Films is handling international sales.
“Labirintus” tells the story of a paranormal investigator (Webber), psychiatric researcher (Hurd-Wood) and engineer (Deutsch) who join forces to explore an abandoned subterranean Soviet research facility, hidden within the dark twisting catacombs beneath Buda Castle. When supernatural forces confound and torment the group they begin to question their own sanity. To escape they must quash their fears and lead their team to find and destroy the dark heart of the maze.
Written by Alan Campbell, “Labirintus” is produced by Fabrice Lambot of France’s Metaluna Prods., Lucy Mukerjee-Brown of Mukerjee-Brown Prods., Elizabeth Stanley of Elizabeth Stanley Pictures and Jean-Charles Levy of Forecast Pictures. Nick Quested and Pascal Degove, managing director of Goldcrest, will serve as executive producers for Goldcrest.
Dante’s feature credits include features “The Howling”, “Gremlins” and “Small Soldiers”; TV work includes the anthology series “Masters of Horror” and “Amazing Stories”, as well as episodes of the new “Hawaii 5-0”, “CSI: New York”, “Salem” and “Legends of Tomorrow”.
Goldcrest started selling the film to distributors at the AFM and has already secured deals in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pan Asia TV, Thailand, Israel, South Africa, Turkey and the Middle East.
Hurd-Wood shot to fame with her portrayal of Wendy Darling in P.J. Hogan’s “Peter Pan”. Subsequently she starred in a host of high-profile features including “An American Haunting”, “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”, “Dorian Gray” and “Soloman Kane”. Most recently she has been seen in Stuart Beattie’s “Tomorrow, When the War Began”.
Webber is best known for his leading performance in the Toronto Film Festival Midnight Madness audience hit “Green Room”, Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs The World”, the Sundance grand jury prize nominee “Happy Christmas”, alongside Anna Kendrick. His feature directorial debut “Explicit Ills”, in which he and Rosario Dawson starred, won the SXSW Audience Award. He also starred on-stage at London’s Almeida Theatre in Neil Labute’s “The Distance from Here”. (Agencies)
Cesar nominee Deutsch will soon be seen in “The Visitors: Bastille Day”, the third outing in Jean-Marie Poire’s hit comedy franchise. Deutsch’s feature credits include performances in Gilles Legrand’s “You Will Be My Son” and “Everybody Is a Killer”.
Dante said: “Mark, Rachel and Lorant are phenomenal actors and I am delighted to be working with them in what I anticipate will be a suspenseful, compelling, spine-tingling chiller.”
Degove said: “Joe’s planning to deliver a chilling thrill for audiences and having the right cast is essential in achieving that. It’s very exciting to have Rachel, Mark and Lorant on board and to be shooting so soon.”
Dante is represented by David Gersh of the Gersh Agency and is managed by Mike Marcus and Dave Brown of Echo Lake Management.
Webber is represented by Glenn Rigberg of Inphenate and attorney Ira Schreck, Hurd-Wood by Saskia Mulder of The Artists’ Partnership, Carter Cohn of ICM Partners and by Silver Lining Entertainment. (Agencies)
By Sandy Cohen