If there’s a role made just for well-known New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison it’s the patriarch. In Mahana, the Once Were Warriors star steps into his character Tamihana Mahana as if into a pair of comfortable shoes.
And much like Warriors’ volatile and damaged Jake Heke, Tamihana Mahana rules his family with an iron fist. And heaven help anyone who challenges his authority.
Based on the book Bulibasha by Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera, Mahana is set on the rugged east coast of 1960s New Zealand, and chronicles the decades-long rivalry between two warring sheep-shearing families, the Mahanas and the Poatas.
As the film’s title suggests, the viewers’ sympathies lean towards the Mahana family, headed by Tamihana and his stoic wife Ramona (Nancy Brunning). They live on the family farm with their five adult sons and their families.
Within this generally warm if manufactured closeness a change is brewing as one of the grandchildren, Simeon (Akuhata Keefe), begins to bristle against his grandfather’s authority.
Soon enough things blow up and Simeon’s family is exiled. And while most of the family side with Tamihana, Ramona, who slowly reveals the source of her resentment against Tamihana to her grandson, decides enough is enough and she helps the family resettle nearby.
It’s also clear that the more Tamihara barks the less control he has over his family and the land he’s farmed. But this isn’t a film about a belligerent old man. It’s about Simeon (beautifully played by newcomer Keefe), a young man on the cusp of finding himself and discovering exactly what he’s capable of.
Simeon is blessed to have a supportive teacher in Mr McKenzie (Fraser Brown), who identifies something special in his student. Quoting George Bernard Shaw: ‘A family is a tyranny ruled over by its weakest member’, Mr McKenzie gets Simeon thinking about authority and what real strength means.
Simeon gets to exercise this during an incursion to the local courthouse (where Maori is forbidden to be spoken despite most of the accused being Maori) when he tells the bemused judge exactly what he thinks of his idea of justice.
Director Lee Tamahori brings a fair amount of romance to this family tale—and not just in the mild flirtation between Simeon and Poata girl Poppy (Yvonne Porter). And therein lies the film’s greatest weakness. At key narrative points screenwriter John Collee’s script veers dangerously into melodrama, which feels unsatisfactory and manipulative.
Mahana doesn’t quite live up to Tamahori’s previous homeland film Once Were Warriors, but the cinematography is beautiful and this is a testament to the grit and determination that brought it to the screen on a shoestring budget.
Moreover, while the Mahana family might be from a bygone era, their hopes and struggles seem at once familiar and contemporary.
Highlight: New Zealand landscape
Red flags: some coarse language and violence