Winning portrait of a Maori chess champion
Genesis “Gen” Potini (Cliff Curtis) has no reason to be happy as he walks down the middle of the street in James Napier Robertson’s biopic “The Dark Horse.” But he is overjoyed, a state captured by the bright colors and gold-tinted cinematography and Curtis’s otherworldly expression of rapture and pain (he is more beatific here than as Yeshua, a.k.a. Jesus, in “Risen”).
He shuffles into a chess shop in Gisborne, New Zealand, and commandeers a board. Customers are at first alarmed, then amazed as he zips the pieces about. Rattling off his moves out loud with mounting excitement, he plays a rapid-fire solitaire game he can only lose.
It won’t be long before the men in the white coats take him away.
Gen is a chess genius, monickered “The Dark Horse” by the press when he emerged from the rough Maori community to become a rising champion. But genius — unless it submits to mediocrity, as it must in almost all movies on the subject — is doomed to madness. As happens with Bobby Fisher in “Pawn Sacrifice” (why not make a movie about Boris Spassky, a sane champion?) and others who hubristically shine (like the pianist in the 1998 Australian movie “Shine”), Gen’s gift undoes him. He is bipolar.
When his time in the asylum is up, Gen’s longed-for freedom offers limited options. He moves in with his brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi), who is a terrible sibling and a worse father. Ariki is chieftain of a leather-clad biker gang (though there seem to be no bikes) and he enlists a member even nastier than himself to initiate his teenage son Mana (James Rolleston) into manhood. That involves frequent beatings, tattoos, brutal assaults, armed robbery, and drinking in the back yard.
No wonder Mana sees Gen as an escape from a life of brutal misery, especially when Gen dedicates himself to forming the local kids into a chess club and taking them to the National Chess Championships.
Then “Dark Horse” falls into the formula of underprivileged kids challenging the elites at their own game. But the outcome is never certain. Curtis’s Gen struggles to hold it together, and his face reflects a wisdom that has known experienced ecstasy and is willing to pay the price.
THE DARK HORSE
Written and directed by James Napier Robertson. Starring Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Wayne Hapi. At Kendall Square. 124 minutes. R (mild thematic elements and language).