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Toronto Review: Cliff Curtis is a Fallen Champion Turned Mentor in “The Dark Horse”

Toronto Review: Cliff Curtis is a Fallen Champion Turned Mentor in "The Dark Horse"

Lead by Cliff Curtis’ transformative performance this Kiwi drama is an affecting representation of mental illness in a rather singular context. His
portrayal of real life chess virtuoso Genesis Potini struggling with bipolar disorder in a gang-ridden small town is inspiring but not without making a point of the
darkness that lurks around.

Drifting away in between hospital stays and sporadic delusional episode, Genesis (Cliff Curtis) is a strong-built Maori man whose inner battles have prevented him from
pursing his passion for the intellectual board game. Following one of his usual escapades into the outside world without supervision, Genesis is put in the
care of his older brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi). But the latter doesn’t have much
time to deal with his sibling’s affliction. He is a tough gang member whose main concern is to get his 14-year-old son Mana (James Rolleston) inducted into the violent organization
as soon as he turns 15 – a life of crime is all they’ve ever known.

Unfortunately, their case is not an exception to the rule but the norm. Most children in this marginalized community – prominently populated by people of
indigenous descent – have no role models to speak of. In their isolation is hard for them to imagine brighter horizons where they can avoid addiction,
abuse, and illegal activity. Partially motivated by his own need to be part of something and by a genuine interest to be of help, Genesis joins a local
kids’ chess club. Initially, Noble, (Kirk Torrance) who runs the makeshift group out of his garage, perceives Genesis’ overly cheerful demeanor as dangerous. He wants to
shield these children from probable disappointed caused by the fallen champion’s erratic behavior. Eventually, Genesis’ undeniable talent and boyish
optimism connect with the young players. He has been given a purpose that allows him to live vicariously through his pupils: The Eastern Knights.

Aiming to take the team to the national championship in Auckland, Noble and Genesis have no time to waste. But the unpredictable nature of bipolar disorder is a
constant reminder that full normalcy is almost unattainable for the valiant warrior. As if his fight wasn’t already tumultuous enough, Genesis fears for his nephew’s safety given
the brutally with which his brother’s gang operates. He wants to give Mana the chance to see beyond the disheartening and hyper-masculine environment around
him. On the chessboard, they both find a place where strategy reigns above brute force. The precise numeric rules and calculative quality of the game give
them a glimpse of what it means to be in control.

Within this Maori community, a symbolic value is added to cerebral game. Honor plays a pivotal, almost ritualistic, role in the way Genesis thinks of
himself while playing. He is not only a warrior, but also a righteous king that doesn’t leave anyone behind and who is willing to endure painful sacrifices for
the common welfare. Curtis let’s himself be overwhelmed by such conflicting feelings of failure and greatness in extreme forms inhabiting a single body.
Exceptional skills eclipsed by misfortune. But through it all, the imposing actor remains heartbreakingly truthful. There is no euphemisms or sugarcoated
false hopes, his character is an ill person stranded in a place with no tolerance for weakness. Still, this perpetual vulnerability is what enhances his
warm humanity.

Genesis is a gentle giant that illuminates the lives of those around him regardless of the despairing conditions. His astonishingly
welcoming demeanor as Mana’s surrogate father and as a heroic figure for the rest of the kids is delightfully capture by the actor. This is certainly a
turning point in Curtis eclectic career. He is nearly unrecognizable after gaining over 60 lbs to play the role and embedding his performance with a
powerfully quiet inner turmoil. Young Rolleston’s work as a boy on the cusp of manhood is equally noteworthy for it’s subtle anger and childlike need for affection and acceptance.

Written and directed by James Napier Robertson, “The Dark Horse” definitely hits familiar notes as a biopic and an
inspirational film. But these never feel as it forcefully trying to generate an
emotional reaction, and that is definitely the product of a screenplay that
doesn’t shy away from the unflattering aspects of the story. Besides the
personal conflicts, undertones of social and political indifference are visible
particularly when Genesis’ team competes against the affluent city kids who
looked at them with disdain. “The Dark Horse” offers an underdog premise with
highlighted nuances pertinent to this specific part of the world, but with the
added bonus of being relevant anywhere there is a group of people living in the
outskirts of mainstream society. Moving and incredibly humanistic, “The Dark
” utilizes well-known tropes and strategically places them on the winning
side of the board.  


“The Dark Horse” recently premiered at TIFF. International sales are being handled by Seville International.

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