Whale Rider (PG)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner07/07/2003

Three out of Five stars
Running time: 101 mins

Beautifully shot, well-acted but still slightly disappointing drama, less the fault of the actors than of their scripted characters.

If you’ve seen Once Were Warriors, you could be forgiven for thinking that New Zealand cinema was attempting to out-do British 1960s kitchen sink dramas in terms of sheer miserablism.

For the most part, Whale Rider looks like it’s going the same way – it opens, for example, with the death of a child. However, it soon becomes clear that Whale Rider is at least trying to be an uplifting feel-good coming-of-age movie.

Traditional Sexism

The film is set on the east coast of modern day New Zealand, amongst the Whangara community - a Maori tribe supposedly descended from the Whale Rider, Paikea. Newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes plays Pai, a young girl who would have been destined to become the tribe’s next chief, had she been born a boy. However, her grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene) refuses to let a girl inherit his mantle and instead sets about training the local boys to become ‘the true chief’.

No prizes, then, for guessing what happens in the end. The main problem with the film, then, lies in the way the characters are written. At several points during the film you are desperate for Pai to stand up to her grandfather (the stick-fighting scene in particular, cries out for it), but she remains strangely passive towards him throughout.

Similarly, the school recital scene –which in any sentimental Hollywood movie would have caused a run on Kleenex stocks- mysteriously lacks the desired emotional impact.

Somewhat Lacking Humour

It’s also slightly disappointing, given that this is a coming-of-age movie, that the screenplay doesn’t develop Pai’s relationship with one of the boys. Another problem is that the film doesn’t really allow either Pai or her grandfather to exhibit much of a sense of humour – as a result, the laughs (such as they are) all come from the supporting cast.

That said, there are several good scenes, mostly involving the tasks that Koro sets his protegés. Similarly, fans of literal film titles won’t be disappointed – rest assured, whales do get ridden in this movie. It also looks fabulous throughout, courtesy of a) the glorious New Zealand scenery and b) cinematographer Leon Narbey.

The acting is good – Castle-Hughes will no doubt go on to bigger things – it’s just a shame that the characters feel somewhat underwritten. Still, if you’re in the mood for a good-looking, feelgood arthouse movie, then Whale Rider is definitely worth seeing.

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Content updated: 19/10/2017 11:53

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