Family feud a well-worn theme
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.
THE STORY IS OLDFASHIONED, BUT NOT ENTIRELY IN A NEGATIVE SENSE
Una Stubbs, left, Simon Callow Virginia McKenna and Bernard Hill in Golden Years
Temuera Morrison, left, and Akuhata Keefe, top, in Mahana