This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 23rd June 2013
Local critics freely admit that reviewing indigenous fare is rife with challenges. We are such a small nation, with an even smaller film industry, it is natural to want to support and applaud our fellow Kiwis’ efforts. Additionally, there are perils if you are not resoundingly positive, because odds are you went to school with one of the actors, or will one day bump into the filmmaker around town.
So just to be clear, I am not “anti” New Zealand films. They shouldn’t be held to a higher (or lower) standard than the rest of the two hundred-plus films that critics see each year. In fact, to do justice to our burgeoning industry, nevermind the wallets of local audiences, one has to be as frank and constructive as one would be about an Afghan or Swedish film.
In that vein, it is with a heavy heart that I have to say White Lies is distinctly average. By which I don’t mean that the writing, acting and photography is all “just OK” – but in the mathematical sense, in that some elements of the film work very well indeed, while other bits clangingly don’t.
The positives are evident from the opening frames – beautiful photography (thanks to legendary cinematographer Alun Bollinger) and superb sound design drops us into an intimate scene that is swiftly brutalised. Fast-forward to early 20th century New Zealand, we meet Paraiti, a medicine woman who travels around the Maori communities, tending to the ill. Pakeha law has banned her practice, but she is approached one day by a Maori servant who asks her to help the woman’s Pakeha mistress. Paraiti’s initial reluctance gives way as an intriguing tale unfolds.
Witi Ihimaera’s source novella has been transposed to the screen with passion and great care by writer/director Dana Rotberg, a Mexican filmmaker who moved to New Zealand in 2004 on the strength of seeing Whale Rider. The scar-faced Paraiti is played with subtlety and grace by Whirimako Black, an accomplished singer with eight albums under her belt, here in her first acting role. It is notable that she is the least experienced and yet most compelling actor in the cast, perfectly chosen to carry the story. Black plays perfectly against Rachel House, the Uncle Tom figure of a servant, Maraea, who delivers a solid performance with her beautiful baritone.
By comparison, Antonia Prebble’s (Outrageous Fortune) Mrs Vickers acts like she’s in a play, the fault, perhaps, of Rotberg’s script. While the director’s commitment to Ihimaera’s work is evident, the film is slightly lacking in pace and frequently clunky in its exposition. The porcelain Prebble barks her lines accordingly, unconvincing in her complex, ambivalent role. (“They said you were ugly – but you’re just burned and scarred” she retorts early on, just so we’re clear she’s not to be pitied or cared about.) Veteran actor Elizabeth Hawthorne has a cameo as her Shortland Street character of yore, here ironically demoted to hospital matron, and just as nasty in caricature.
Despite excellent period detail, somehow the interior sets look staged rather than inhabited, and a strange level of detachment or “unbelonging” afflicts all of the scenes between the three core women. As theatre each of these elements would have worked, but as a film it requires more intimacy, and unfortunately we come away feeling deprived.