Fam­ily feud a well-worn theme

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

he sec­ond New Zealand fea­ture to find its way into our cin­e­mas this year, af­ter the very ami­able Hunt for the Wilder­peo­ple, Ma­hana is a fam­ily drama that un­folds in spec­tac­u­larly beau­ti­ful farm­ing coun­try c. 1959-60.

It’s no sur­prise when some of the char­ac­ters go to the lo­cal cin­ema at one point to see the pop­u­lar 1957 western 3.10 to Yuma be­cause this is es­sen­tially a vari­a­tion on clas­sic western themes — bit­ter ri­valry be­tween feud­ing fam­i­lies — while owing a con­sid­er­able debt to Elia Kazan’s 1954 film of John Stein­beck’s East of Eden in its de­pic­tion of a stern pa­tri­arch and the ef­fect his un­bend­ing rec­ti­tude has on a sen­si­tive son. In this con­text it was amus­ing to note from the end cred­its that one of the film’s pro­duc­ers is named James Dean.

The pa­tri­arch in ques­tion is Tami­hana Ma­hana, played with great au­thor­ity by Te­muera Mor­ri­son. Ma­hana is a proud and tra­di­tion­bound Maori whose fam­ily has worked for many years as sheep shear­ers for the lo­cal (white) farmer. For rea­sons that ini­tially are un­ex­plained, Ma­hana is a bit­ter en­emy of the neigh­bour­ing Poata fam­ily and its clan leader Ru­peni (Jim Mo­ri­arty), and he ex­pects his sev­eral chil­dren and grand­chil­dren to fol­low his lead in this matter with­out ques­tion.

The film opens with a cu­ri­ous se­quence in which the Ma­hana and Poata fam­i­lies race one an­other to be first at the church where the fu­neral of their for­mer boss is tak­ing place. Tami­hana is des­per­ate to re­tain the shear­ing con­tract he had with the dead man and fear­ful that Poata will steal a march on him.

This fam­ily ri­valry is a prob­lem for 14-yearold Simeon (Akuhata Keefe), a sen­si­tive yet re­bel­lious youth, be­cause he is at­tracted to Poppy Poata (Yvonne Porter), who at­tends the same high school. Simeon is bold enough, or naive enough, to ques­tion his grand­fa­ther in ways that other fam­ily mem­bers never at­tempt, and as a re­sult the old man fre­quently pun­ishes and hu­mil­i­ates him, forc­ing him to stay be­hind with the women when his father, Joshua (Re­gan Taylor), and the other men leave to shear sheep. It’s no con­so­la­tion to Simeon when his mother ex­plains that grand­fa­ther “is tough­est on the kids he be­lieves in”.

Mean­while at school Simeon’s Scot­tish teacher (Fraser Brown) in­tro­duces the class to a telling quote from Ge­orge Bernard Shaw (“A fam­ily is a tyranny ruled over by its weak­est mem­ber”), pro­vid­ing Simeon with more food for thought. At the same time that he’s com­ing to terms with his fam­ily prob­lems, Simeon is also be­gin­ning to ex­pe­ri­ence other as­pects of the real world. Again, it’s his teacher who points the way: he takes the class to wit­ness jus­tice in ac­tion at the lo­cal court­house, where a prom­i­nent sign de­clares that the Maori lan­guage may not be spo­ken and where the judge’s de­ci­sion seems un­duly harsh to the boy.

Mean­while, brief flash­backs hint at the rea­sons for the fam­ily feud, which ap­pear to in­volve Simeon’s grand­mother, Ra­mona (Nancy Brun­ning).

The story of Simeon and his fam­ily is old- fash­ioned, but not en­tirely in a neg­a­tive sense. The screen­play by John Collee (who scripted Peter Weir’s Mas­ter and Com­man­der) is adapted from a book by Witi Ihi­maera, au­thor of Whale Rider, and though the ba­sic nar­ra­tive arc — a boy be­comes a man by stand­ing up for him­self — is a fa­mil­iar one, it makes for a mostly re­ward­ing film thanks to its spec­tac­u­lar set­ting. New Zealand’s pas­toral vis­tas are hand­somely pho­tographed by Ginny Loane.

Di­rec­tor Lee Tama­hori is best known for his shat­ter­ing de­pic­tion of ur­ban Maori fam­ily life, Once were War­riors (1994), in which Mor­ri­son was also mem­o­rable, af­ter which he made sev­eral films over­seas, in­clud­ing the last of Pierce Bros­nan’s James Bond out­ings, Die An­other Day (2002). Ma­hana is the first film he has made in his na­tive New Zealand in many years, and it feels like a home­com­ing.

Un­for­tu­nately, some nar­ra­tive cliches and un­cer­tain­ties, and the in­ex­pe­ri­ence of young Keefe as Simeon, be­come more both­er­some as the film, which is get­ting a lim­ited re­lease, pro­ceeds. So many el­e­ments of Ma­hana im­press that it’s sad to see it fall short in a few key re­spects. As younger peo­ple in­creas­ingly con­sume their movies and other forms of pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment on tablets or smart­phones, at­tempts are be­ing stepped up to lure older au­di­ences into con­ven­tional cin­e­mas. The en­sem­ble older casts fea­tured in the Best Ex­otic Marigold Ho­tel films proved suc­cess­ful, and now a Bri­tish film ar­rives, in lim­ited re­lease, with a sim­i­lar tar­get au­di­ence in its sights. The trou­ble with Golden Years, how­ever, is that this story of el­derly bank rob­bers be­comes in­creas­ingly far-fetched and ridicu­lous the longer it pro­ceeds.

It starts quite promis­ingly. Arthur (Bernard Hill) and his wife, Martha (Vir­ginia McKenna), live a mod­est but com­fort­able life in the sub­urbs of Bris­tol in the West of Eng­land. They and their friends, in­clud­ing Roys­ton (Si­mon Cal­low) and his wife Shirley (Una Stubbs), Brian (Phil Davis) and fun-lov­ing Thelma (Ellen Thomas) fre­quent the lo­cal bowl­ing club, where the bar has be­come the cen­tre of their so­cial life.

Then, one by one, ev­ery­thing seems to go wrong. Arthur is in­formed that, be­cause his for­mer em­ployer has been de­clared bank­rupt, his re­tire­ment pen­sion will be se­ri­ously af­fected. As it is he and Martha are only just get­ting by (they don’t ap­pear to have any fam­ily to lend them sup­port), so the sit­u­a­tion seems des­per­ate. Then comes the bomb­shell that their beloved bowl­ing club is to be auc­tioned off, rob­bing them of their com­mu­nity cen­tre of choice.

Arthur, who has prob­a­bly watched too many crime pro­grams on tele­vi­sion, pon­ders rob­bing the bank he sees as partly re­spon­si­ble for his woes (here the film has un­likely par­al­lels with the vastly su­pe­rior Amer­i­can thriller Hell or High Wa­ter) and he does suc­ceed in mak­ing off with a pile of cash as the re­sult of an un­ex­pected, but con­vinc­ingly de­picted, ac­ci­dent.

Like Robin Hood, Arthur wants to share the money with his friends and be­fore long sev­eral oldies have joined his “gang” with the in­ten­tion of steal­ing enough money to save the bowl­ing club. It’s from this point that the film en­ters a down­ward spi­ral. Suc­cess­ful com­edy must have some ba­sis in re­al­ity, and in­creas­ingly Golden Years has none, es­pe­cially in the char­ac­ters of a stri­dently ar­ro­gant young cop (Brad Moore) and his be­fud­dled older col­league (Alun Arm­strong), though Sue John­ston as the lat­ter’s wife gives a cred­itable per­for­mance as a ne­glected woman who de­cides to stand up for her­self.

McKenna, the pop­u­lar star of 1950s films such as Carve Her Name with Pride, A Town Like Alice and Born Free (1965), is now 85, and her sprightly and game per­for­mance is one of the film’s de­lights. But she, and in­deed ev­ery mem­ber of the cast, de­served a bet­ter, less far­fetched, plot than di­rec­tor John Miller and writ­ers Miller, Nick Knowles and Jeremy Shel­don have de­vised for them.


Una Stubbs, left, Si­mon Cal­low Vir­ginia McKenna and Bernard Hill in Golden Years

Te­muera Mor­ri­son, left, and Akuhata Keefe, top, in Ma­hana

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