Adapted from Witi Ihimaera’s novel “Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies”, this tale of two warring sheep-shearing families set in rural 1960s New Zealand delivers a straightforward plotline amidst stunning scenery (as you’d hope), but it’s the compelling performances which delightfully raise its bar.
The Mahanas and the Poatas have carried an unarticulated grudge for decades, the children raised in each clan aware of their Montague-Capuletesque prohibition on interaction but no one quite clear as to why. That is, until bolshy teenager, Simeon (a stand-out performance by newcomer Akuhata Keefe, whose wonderful face and demeanour ooze charisma and personality) unearths the seed of a scandal. However, the Mahana whanau live under the iron fist of patriarch Tamihana (a fine Temuera Morrison, warmly tyrannical with a hint of underlying Jake-the-Muss menace) and challenging his expectations will not be allowed.
For local audiences, there’s something magical about seeing Morrison and Nancy Brunning on screen together again after what feels like a long absence (at very least, it is several decades since Shortland Street became part of our national televisual history). Here they lead a strong cast of perfectly-pitched children against the Poatas (headed by the great Jim Moriarty) and the usual cohort of Kiwi cameos. It is the senior Mahanas who set the tone with their quiet gravitas in the film’s opening moments, and this nicely paves the way for the family drama (sometimes amusing, sometimes moving) which ensues.
If Ihimaera’s original story leads us into familiar territory with storm-ridden accidents, devastating secrets and familial lies, any lack of narrative surprise is more than offset by the beautifully lit photography and gentle soundtrack which charmingly evokes the era. Te reo Maori is seamlessly integrated into the dialogue with no need for hand-holdy subtitles, because the sense of a scene says it all.
Director Lee Tamahori, reteaming with Morrison from Once Were Warriors days and happily back on local ground twenty years after he began a stint in Hollywood (which included a James Bond movie and The Devil’s Double, an underrated yet enthralling tale of Saddam Hussein’s sadistic son), shows a lightness of touch and a connection with Aotearoa which does justice to Ihimaera’s tale and beautifully showcases part of our nation’s history.