Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Whale Rider

Whale Rider

Going in, I had no idea what this was about other than fact the lead actress was the youngest ever Best Actress nominee at the Oscars and that it was presumably about riding whales. I think I expected an arthouse Free Willy. Instead what I got was the charming, and often heartbreaking, tale of a culture in turmoil and the strains focused on one young girl.

Paikea ‘Pai’ Apirana (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is a Māori girl whose mother and twin brother die in childbirth. With her father also out of the picture, this throws up a problem as her brother was destined to carry on the tribe’s male lineage and eventually lead the fractured community; a fact which can’t be forgotten by Pai’s grandfather, Koro, the community chief.

We are lead into Pai’s detached world where her entire life is predetermined by the fact that, as a female, she will always be resented by her grandfather and never be treated as an equal in her tribe. Masculinity is at the heart of her community, which follows the ‘old ways’. The film works better as a wider examination of the tribulations facing Māori culture than it does as a small-scale family drama.

While it could be cut-and-dry with definitive lines drawn for our affection, both Pai and Koro are well-nuanced and sensitively crafted enough that we feel for both characters, despite any deficiencies. While not immediately sympathetic, there is a quiet dignity to Koro and, at heart, he only wants what is best for his people. Rawiri Paratene brings an air of nobility to the role and never fails to convince as he grieves for a culture slowly being lost to progression.

It’s rare to see a child actor able to carry such emotional weight without ever seeming precocious. Almost the entire film is focused on Pai and she never begins to grate, always convincing whether quietly sulking, fighting back or breaking down in tears.

There’s the occasional injection of levity into the film and the flat New Zealand accent gives the humblest of comedic lines a deadpan brilliance. There are a few moments in the film where I had to stifle a tear but it always felt genuine and never emotionally manipulative. While whales do eventually make an appearance they only serve to add depth to the narrative and never once look even remotely spectacular on screen.

The film does feel well-worn and never leads you anywhere have haven’t already seen coming a mile off. I suppose it’s not really trying to break boundaries but there’s something verging on the unsatisfying about it. The occasional voice-over which creeps in is unnecessary and seems included only as a shortcut for saying what could otherwise have been portrayed through the acting.

It never feels completely glib and when it deals with the bigger picture, it’s a real success. While the family drama is several notches above most others, it’s these elements of the film which seem to offer the neater conclusions.


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