Year:  2023

Director:  Lee Tamahori

Release:  25 April 2024

Distributor: Kismet

Running time: 119 minutes

Worth: $11.99
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Guy Pearce, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Antonio Te Maioha, Lawrence MAkoare, Jacqueline McKenzie, Dean O’Gorman

… a Revisionist Western that doesn’t actually Revise anything.

After so many years of disappointing or just plain embarrassing features (the low point for James Bond in Die Another Day; the thoroughly unnecessary xXx: State of the Union, Next and its utter void of an actual conclusion), it’s easy to forget that there was a time when director Lee Tamahori was poised for New Zealand’s cinematic crown. Once Were Warriors remains one of the nation’s greatest cinematic art works, and even his last film Mahana, while almost-hilariously mishandled, showed him still able to bring the real Aotearoa to the big screen. And with his latest, he makes another step back in the right direction.

Set during the tail-end of the Musket Wars, the film’s titular character is lay preacher Thomas (Guy Pearce), who has landed in a newfound British settlement in NZ and found himself caught up in a conflict between two Māori tribes armed with British-supplied muskets. Like Once Were Warriors, the strain caused by colonisation and general Anglophile interference is at the forefront.

The script (by Tamahori himself, co-writing for the first time, along with Australian cinema intellectual Shane Danielsen) is Māori-centred first and foremost, so it thankfully avoids turning into yet another White Saviour story, but it arguably would have worked better without the Thomas character entirely. There’s decent set-up, giving him a tragic backstory to do with his involvement in warfare, but by film’s end, not only does it seem like he’s only arbitrarily in a better place, but that he gets there by returning to the very behaviour he carries such guilt over, up to and including visual shorthand that harkens back to that same event. It’s like a Revisionist Western that doesn’t actually Revise anything.

Ginny Loane’s panoramic cinematography captures the sheer beauty of the natural world under the great white cloud, and the attention to detail in the hand-made costuming and set design helps ground this historical epic in appropriate reality. The performances within the Māori tribes also work well, particularly from Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne as Thomas’ ward Rangimai and former Uruk-hai Lawrence Makoare as enemy chieftain Akatarewa. Bonus points for Jacqueline McKenzie former Irish convict Charlotte.

Unfortunately, because the film ends up far more invested in Thomas’ nothingburger of a moral arc than it is in the Māori conflict itself (or hell, even the pretence of its own title), The Convert only ends up being just another historical drama. It engenders goodwill by providing cinematic perspective on a story and culture that are usually pushed to the side, but that ultimately isn’t enough to completely carry this film all the way through.