This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 28th July 2013
Three decades after Utu became our industry’s biggest budget and arguably most lauded film (at the time), audiences have the opportunity to experience this piece of historical and cinematic heritage on the big screen once again. Exclusive to the travelling New Zealand International Film Festival (which is making its way around the country over the next couple of months), this vibrantly restored masterpiece is absolutely worth (re)visiting.
Since 1983 the original film has been subject to a slicing and dicing that spawned a Director’s Cut that in fact had nothing to do with director Geoff Murphy. Happily, Murphy, director of photography Graeme Cowley and other original crew members have lovingly restored Utu to its former glory (with a few improvements to sound and editing). Still resolutely a NZ movie of the early ‘80s, it’s thrilling to see Bruno Lawrence, Ilona Rodgers and a bunch of supporting actors whose faces have continued to grace our screens over the decades (though sadly Kelly Johnson left acting to become a lawyer) – but even with that ‘80s aura, boy does it hold up.
Playing out like a Kiwi western, the 1870s story revolves around an embittered Maori soldier, Te Wheke (a charismatic Anzac Wallace), who deserts the British Army when his family’s village is destroyed, and seeks revenge (utu) on the Pakeha invaders.
The wonderful performances count too many to single out, but what’s notable is the acting and diction in this period piece is totally captivating, and despite being about a serious (and often distressing) subject, the script frequently provokes wry laughs.
The soundtrack is shamelessly bombastic, sensational as an accompaniment to wild scenery and brutish behaviour. Catch it while you can.