Whale Rider

Whale Rider (PG)

A massive international hit at festival after festival, Whale Rider is another winner from the Antipodes that augurs well for even more classy cinematic product from the underneath of the world.

A story of love, honour, respect and a community gently enslaved by its leader’s rigid devotion to folklore, Whale Rider rises above its obvious budgetary limitations and no-name cast to deliver a tale that could just as easily have been set 1,000 years ago. Instead writer/director Niki Caro places the film in a contemporary setting and offers up two of the most compelling performances we will see this year from Keisha Castle-Hughes and Rawiri Paratene.

In a tiny coastal village in a remote corner of New Zealand, Maori elder Koro (Paratene) watches as his son’s wife dies giving birth to twins. But the boy, Koro’s longed-for saviour of the tribe, dies, leaving only Pai (Castle-Hughes), a granddaughter Koro neither needs nor wants.

As Pai grows towards adolescence her love and respect for Koro grows. To her he is a mystical man – a grey-haired, forbidding presence in her life, but one that embodies everything about the culture she was born into.

Koro’s feelings towards Pai are muted; he loves the child but cannot help but see her as the author of the tribe’s on-going misfortune.

With the death of her brother so died the tribe’s chance of salvation through the mythical figure of the whale rider – based on stories passed down over eons of a man who, riding atop the back of a great whale, will unite the tribe and bring it good fortune.

But Pai begins to fight back against her grandfather’s blinkered pride and stubbornness, and soon it is Koro who must look to himself to consider who is wrong, and who is right – tribal leader, or 12-year-old child.

There is a majesty and ethereal beauty about Whale Rider that has been rarely seen in films of recent vintage. With its story culled from the novel by Witi Ihimaera this stunning slice of Maori magic is brought vividly to life by a largely unknown cast and, particularly, through the interplay between Paratene and Castle-Hughes.

This is a fierce study of both unconditional love (Pai for Koro) and brutal traditionalism (Koro’s rejection of Pai). Throw in the timeless elements of father-son tension, the blind rigidity of tradition, the silent intimidation of tribespeople ruled by legends and fairytales and the refusal to accept the rush of the modern age, and Whale Rider boasts all the ingredients of great drama.

It delivers in spades. Caro plays out her story against a stunning New Zealand backdrop while the ensemble cast is never less than perfect. Paratene is so lofty, so haughty, so reserved in his treatment of his desperate-to-please grandchild that audiences will want to reach into the screen and slap him, while Castle-Hughes – a genuine discovery in her film debut – shows steel beneath her smiles. This is heady stuff, and quite wonderful.

Cinemagoers anxious to rediscover emotions lost amid a welter of humourless, unabsorbing and listless blockbusters should seek out Whale Rider, which begins a staggered regional release at Sheffield Showroom this week before moving onto Bradford Pictureville on July 25.

Star rating: ****

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