When I spoke with Mahana Director Lee Tamahori earlier this week he told me that westerns were a dead genre. Mahana may not be a western, but the genre’s spirit is alive and well in the accomplished Director’s confronting and visually rapturous thriller.
Set in the 1960s amidst a long-standing rivalry between two New Zealand sheep-shearing families, Tamahori reunites with his Once Were Warriors star Temuera Morrison. Depicting Mahana, the patriarch of a sprawling offspring, he clashes with grandson Simeon (newcomer Akuhata Keefe) who isn’t too keen on the status quo, beginning to question the underpinnings of the longstanding rivalry between the Mahana and Poata families, which no one is ready to talk about.
There are several scenes that sear themselves on the mind – consummately staged and visually gripping, the sight of Mahana cascading a hill on horseback or casually observing his juniors as the weather worsens will not be lost on anyone who’s ever relished idyllic westerns like Shane or The Magnificent Seven. The intrusion of another man on horseback into a crowded cinema thrillingly clobbers the viewer with the Director’s palpable affection for a bygone time; all too welcome for its less than common flair and riveting treatment of the romantic era’s distinguished style.
The sheep-sheering sequences and the competition of same are too among the film’s most endearing instances, itself elucidating on the burgeoning schism within the family as Simeon clashes with his once unquestionable authority.
The unflappable Morrison is more than a force to be reckoned with. Ably cast in the stoic role, he shares an affecting dynamic with his younger counterpart, though Keefe’s own best moments are when he alone is front and centre, confronting both a Courtroom and his grandmother in two memorable episodes.
With a story strong enough to exist on its own merits and a fine cast to match, Tamahori’s infusion of western motifs and the accordingly stunning imagery together recommend Mahana above all else.
Mahana is screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival on Sunday 12 June and Monday 13 June, for tickets head to the Festival website