The Dark Horse Hits European Cinemas

The Dark Horse Hits European Cinemas

| 27 | Chess Event Coverage

“Arguably the best-ever chess-themed film,” wrote GM Ian Rogers about The Dark Horse, a film about courage and hope (and chess!) that is currently playing in European cinemas.

The Dark Horse (IMDB, 2014) is a New Zealand drama film written and directed by James Napier Robertson. Chess plays an important role: a coach, not stable himself, teaches chess to troubled youth, preparing them for a tournament in Auckland. 

The title of the film refers to its main character Genesis Potini, played by New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis (Training Day, Whale Rider, The Last Airbender, Once Were Warriors). Critics agree that Curtis might be playing the performance of his career.

The film is based on true story; Potini was a an eccentric but excellent chess coach of Maori descent who battled bipolar disorder and passed away in 2011. By coaching the kids, he hoped to give them a positive focus in life and dissuade them from getting involved in gangs and crime.

Twelve years ago a documentary was based on the same story, simply called Dark Horse. It won the 2005 Best New Zealand Feature Documentary. James Napier Robertson has now written and directed a feature film which came out last year.

The film was released July 31 2014 in New Zealand and has won several prizes already:

  • Best Film, Best Director, Best Writer, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Score at the 2015 New Zealand Film Awards.
  • Second place in the Audience Award for Best Film at the Palm Springs Film Festival. 
  • First place in the Audience Award for Best Film at the 2015 Rotterdam International Film Festival.

Cliff Curtis also won the award for Best Actor at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and the Dublin Film Critics Circle Awards.

Cliff Curtis as Genesis Potini.

The reviews have been very positive as well. Some quotes:

New Zealand Herald: “One of the most compelling films to come out of New Zealand in years. It’s a rare display of grit and heart that will induce laughter and tears.”

Hollywood Reporter: “Curtis (...) commands the screen in a quietly affecting turn that is certain to attract awards attention.”

Variety: “[T]he most deserving cinematic export to emerge from New Zealand in years — and that’s taking into consideration the recent ‘Hobbit’ trilogy.”

Financial Times: “The style is picture-book Sturm und Drang: vivid, naïf, weirdly lyrical. Curtis, a background face in countless down-under dramas, gets to strut in the stardom sun and is terrific: snaggle-toothed, volatile, bruised by life, addled one moment, animated-to-incandescent the next.”

Daily Express: “The Dark Horse downplays the melodrama, adopting a more thoughtful, slow-burning approach as we discover Potini's strengths and failings and grow to understand why he became such an influential figure.”

The Guardian: “[Curtis ] dominates the screen as the mercurial Gen. It’s a breathtaking performance, note perfect in every gesture, mesmerising in its conviction. Top marks, too, to rising star James Rolleston as teenager Mana, for whom the widening horizons of chess are overshadowed by the prospect of straitjacketing initiation into local gang the Vagrants.”

Genesis teaching chess to troubled youth.

Early April the film hit UK cinemas, and in The Netherlands it was released on May 7th. (A release in the U.S. is likely — follow the film's Facebook or Twitter to stay updated.)

I went to see it last night and was impressed as well. The chess is there, but doesn't play a major role. Thanks to the storyline, acting and cinematography it is much more than a “chess film,” whatever that may be.

GM Ian Rogers went as far as calling it “arguably the best-ever chess-themed film,” adding: “Overall, The Dark Horse packs a punch and sets a high bar for any new ‘coach meets underdogs’ chess movie to reach.”

He also noted the one thing in the film that may look strange to chess experts: at the Auckland Junior Championship the participants are out after losing a single game. It's a bit of a strange knockout format that does however lead to a thrilling finale where Genesis is sent outside as he cannot stand the stress.

In another scene one kid beats another with the typical queen sac on g8 that leads to a smothered mate, whereupon he's surprised that it's actually checkmate. Only we chess players would notice that, and that's a lot easier to digest than “wrong square” or pieces not set up correctly.

No, this is a film where you can forget about your chess knowledge and simply enjoy it. If it was about checkers or monopoly, you'd love it too.

Peter Doggers

Peter Doggers joined a chess club a month before turning 15 and still plays for it. He used to be an active tournament player and holds two IM norms.

Peter has a Master of Arts degree in Dutch Language & Literature. He briefly worked at New in Chess, then as a Dutch teacher and then in a project for improving safety and security in Amsterdam schools.

Between 2007 and 2013 Peter was running ChessVibes, a major source for chess news and videos acquired by in October 2013.

As our Director News & Events, Peter writes many of our news reports. In the summer of 2022, The Guardian’s Leonard Barden described him as “widely regarded as the world’s best chess journalist.”

In October, Peter's first book The Chess Revolution will be published!

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