Cast: Keisha Castle-Huges, Rawiri Paratene
t’s deeply unfortunate that, in the UK, Whale Rider will not be overshadowed by a fellow, vastly superior New Zealand movie. Rain, Christine Jeffs’ first film, received a UK release only a month ago, having premiered at Cannes in 2001 and with its small-scale US release being over a year ago. Simply put, I can’t praise it enough; while its minimal plot – at an isolated rented holiday cottage by the ocean, thirteen year old Janey witnesses the gradual dissolution of her parents’ marriage and copes with the onset of adolescence and her increasing attraction to a local photographer in the hazy atmosphere of the early 1970s – may be over-familiar (and written down like this appears almost self-parodic), its telling is quite remarkable. Its magnificent yet unobtrusive photography of the beautiful landscape is genuinely connected to the story; paradoxically both expansive and claustrophobic, it makes for a hazy, sensuous atmosphere appropriate for the parents’ drink-fuelled beach parties, yet its understated influence and undynamic slowness facilitates Janey’s boredom. It’s exceptionally intelligent and perceptive and astonishingly confident, and I haven’t been so immersed in and affected by a movie since at least Mulholland Drive. Yet it has shown at only three cinemas in all of London, and has been pulled after a month. By contrast, Whale Rider has arrived with several audience awards at film festivals (Sundance, Toronto, San Francisco, blah blah), and widely accepted as something quite special. It’s not.
I need to say this: I liked Whale Rider. It’s horribly difficult not to, and God knows, I tried my best. It helpfully overcomes its awful beginnings and initial jarring shifts of tone, gradually finding a more uniform perspective and some coherent points to put forward. Writer-director Niki Caro has some strong themes to work with; when these themes include destiny, tradition, leadership, patriarchal societies, various family tensions, Maori society and culture, and more, it’s hard to see how any reviews could have described this set-up as unpromising. What’s more, there’s much evidence of directorial brilliance, especially after the halfway mark. There’s a remarkable, strangely poetic quality to some of Caro’s images, and she handles the transformation from the mundane into the quasi-mythic surprisingly well; one major plot development towards the end is truly inspired, and produces some almost iconic imagery. The cast is generally excellent; Keisha Castle-Hughes is clearly good as main character Pai, as is Rawiri Paratene as Koro, Pai’s grandfather and the chief of his people. (Although there’s an annoying tendency for all child actors to be praised as amazingly gifted prodigies; given how many good child acting performances there have been in recent years, Castle-Hughes’ is nothing that special, and certainly not against those of Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki and Aaron Murphy in, yes, Rain.) Although it’s essentially, if you will, a family movie (and note my contempt for that term), it is at least partially aimed at real kids and manages to avoid falling into the usual trap of being patronising or obnoxious. Although its appeal to children is not going to substantially affect my review, since this is Stylus and not, y’know, some kind of consumer guide for parents, its respect for the intelligence of kids is worth noting.
The plot is almost inconceivably predictable. At the start, Pai’s voice-over tells us that her mother died in childbirth, along with her twin brother. This death breaks a chain of male descendants that, legend has it, dates back to Paikea, the community’s founder, who, legend has it, rode in to the village of Whangara on the back of a whale. Koro is – no! but yes! – determined to keep the male line unbroken, so wants his son (and Pai’s father, obviously) Porourangi to produce another male heir; but after Pai’s birth, Porourangi leaves to pursue a career as an artist in Europe. Quick note: Pai’s full name is, of course, Paikea, as chosen by her father against his father’s wishes. Reasonably perceptive readers will probably now be thinking “So presumably, Koro desperately clings on to the traditional, patriarchal ways in a dogmatic but ultimately well-intentioned attempt to save his culture, while Pai, who is doubtless preternaturally confident and strong-willed, attempts to prove that she’s the natural leader of her people, and succeeds, and probably rides a whale at some point.” In short: yes.
And yet more: rather than disguising the inevitability of it all by cleverly subverting clichés or anything, except on one occasion that you’ll read about in almost all other reviews, Caro frequently draws everything out torturously. For example, when Koro gives all the boys of the village compulsory leadership lessons (this obviously excludes Pai, but she secretly spies on the classroom and practises the tribal chanting and stick fighting and such, and receives extra lessons from her overweight uncle who used to be highly talented at this sort of thing, so that’s all right, then), he attempts to identify which one will be leader by throwing a whale’s tooth off a boat and waiting for one to bring it back. You really can’t miss that they’ll all fail, and Pai will collect it on a later occasion. Yet this is played out at ridiculous length, apparently attempting to wring suspense and drama out of a situation where there really isn’t any. And yes, I’m aware of the hypocrisy of identifying the fallacy of judging Rain by a plot outline while jovially mocking Whale Rider based on the same thing, but, as I said, Whale Rider doesn’t do itself any favours.
Even worse: while the plot is predictable because that’s what plots do – there’d simply be no reason to set up the story of a strong-willed young girl who attempts to become chief of her people, if she didn’t become chief of her people, and the title does rather give the impression that whale riding might be involved – if you think about it, there’s simply no reason for it to be obvious for the characters. Of course we know that Pai is the destined chief of her people. But despite Rawiri Paratene’s hugely impressive efforts at conveying Koro’s steadfastness, angered frustration, and respect for his culture, there’s no sense of the weight of 1000 years of tradition and myth. I suppose in keeping with its family-movie stylings, you’re supposed to have an obvious character to root for, and another who is obviously the one in the wrong but understandable and essentially sympathetic at the same time; but there’s no excuse for this disingenuous manipulation, this attempted concealing of characters’ motivations for such stupidly tacky purposes.
And again: manipulative is the only appropriate word here. As briefly mentioned earlier, there are initially horrible, wild shifts in tone, between two equally appalling modes. Firstly, there’s worthlessly localised, lowbrow humour of the sort that you’d find in a deeply inept British movie or even sitcom. The most glaringly awful bit is where Koro introduces a woman to Porourangi in an oh-so-hilariously unsubtle way (he wants them to get married so they can produce a male heir to be chief, DO YOU SEE?), and then, when Porourangi announces that he’s already engaged, instantaneously tells the woman to go away; but there are others. The second mode is that of any scenes featuring Lisa Gerrard’s excessive score, usually accompanied by shots of the sea or possibly some whales or something. Such scenes are strikingly out-of-place when stuck almost randomly amongst the naturalism and wacky comedy bits. I think that, eventually, Gerrard’s score becomes far more suitable, as the tone becomes more uniform and gradually switches to mythic, magic-realist, almost transcendental. Equally, I think that it’s a significant reason for the movie’s essential success. But even in the midst of the genuinely powerful closing shots, I found myself questioning their excessive manipulation, realising that my immersion and emotion owed more to the music and aforementioned poetic imagery, than to any great involvement with the story and characters.
As I said, I liked Whale Rider; it really is difficult not to. On the strength of this, Caro is a remarkably talented director, and to a great extent this overcomes her apparent flaws as a writer. But it simply isn’t the masterpiece that some have claimed it to be. Taken for what it is, though, even despite so many problems, Whale Rider is basically a success, and, yes, perhaps worth seeing.
By: Dan Emerson
Published on: 2003-09-02