The Dead Lands: Movie Review
Cast: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka, George Henare, Rena Owen, Raukura Turei
Director: Toa Fraser
With praise ringing in its ears from the Toronto International Film Festival, Toa Fraser's The Dead Lands hits cinemas, completing a veritable belter of a year for Kiwi fare at the multiplex.
Entirely in Te Reo, Boy and Dark Horse star James Rolleston is Hongi, a Maori chieftain's son whose witnessing of a desecration of ancient descendants by rival chief son Wirepa (Tuhaka) sparks a rift in pre-colonial times.
When Wirepa and his men attack Hongi's tribe in the night, slaughtering all the men and killing Hongi's father Tane, Hongi swears revenge on Wirepa, despite not being fully versed in the ways of the warrior. Hongi sets out to get his vengeance, and with Wirepa crossing the abandoned Dead Lands, he sees his chance to use the spirits of the land and the ancient ways of the warrior to achieve victory.
In among the lush, verdant land so beautifully captured by Fraser and his team, there's a potent mix of spirituality and brutality on show in The Dead Lands.
Rolleston cements his place as a national treasure by pulling in a performance that's a subtle blend of ferocious anger during the quick cut fight scenes and sensitively scared maudlin boy on a coming-of-age journey, teetering on the verge of manhood. Equally, Makoare as the Monster in the Dead Lands is also a frightening presence, a reminder of the simmering rage and yet sadness that lurks in the violence of the past within this taniwha.
But it's Fraser who's the real star of this piece, for pulling together an epic genre film that blends martial arts style fight scenes that spit over with brutality, spirituality, Greek tragedy (via Wirepa's hubris - which is cunningly subverted at the end), 80s action movies (quick zoom ins, an atmospheric synthesiser score from Don McGlashan) and full on te reo. The soundscape's also impressive too, with bone-crunching fight scenes sizzling among the violence of this old fashioned revenge flick.
The te reo is also a masterstroke, with the colourful enunciations delivering an evocatively emotional edge to the spiky dialect and dialogue when practically spat by some of the cast - it's a touch which wouldn't have worked as well were it in English or dubbed.
Presence is key here and Fraser crackles with it with his cast and behind the camera, even as the vengeance story goes on - and leads to a finale that somewhat lacks in final act showdown showmanship after plenty of posturing has filled out the screenplay and screen time. (And given that the haka is more menacing here than on any rugby field)
It's an interesting end where Fraser looks to bridge the violence that's gone on previously and has so wrecked Hongi's life and other tribes with the signs of a dawning of a new sensitivity in the dawning of a new age. Perhaps, a more mature response to what's gone on before.
The Dead Lands proves to be creatively fertile ground for New Zealand cinema in a year that's been unprecedented for Kiwi product - and a sign that when required, we can offer an unique spin on events.