1960s New Zealand and Grandfather (Morrison) is the patriarch of the Mahana family. He rules with an iron fist, but there’s no velvet glove underneath. This multi-generational family split the work on a huge farm according to his rules and whims, relying heavily on the annual sheep-shearing contract that sees them butt heads against the rival Poata family.
On the business end of grandfather’s hard-knock life is his grandson Simeon (Keefe), who is starting to rebel against his dictatorship – and even (barely) trying to catch the eye of one of the sweet Poata daughters.
When Simeon finds a photograph that suggests the family history is quite different from what they’ve all been told – and he starts asking questions of Nana (Brunning) about her marriage – he steps over the line he, his parents and siblings are banished to a decaying shack.
It’s not certain whether they’ll make it – though it’s certain Grandfather will never forgive – but as Simeon grows in confidence and time passes, other family members join them and Nana visits regularly. It’s as if the Mahana family is waiting for the moment when the truth can be revealed.
This was an age when Maori men and women – despite the strictly defined social roles – all worked with axe and sickle when it was required, yet in the eyes of the (white) law their voice was literally not heard, and many scenes here show not only the beauty of New Zealand, but the blood and sweat that went into making it what it is.
A slow-burning drama that has enough conflict and strong characters to even support a television series, Mahana sees director Tamahori – again working with a Witi Ihimaera’s novel, as he did in his earlier film Whale Rider – adding to his impressive and eclectic resume that includes the Devil’s Double, xXx: State of the Union, Along Came a Spider, Mulholland Falls and even a Bond – Die Another Day.
But here he’s back in the past, and he seems to suit those days. Then there’s the brooding, violent presence of Morrison some 22 years later after his turn in Tamahori’s breakout Once Were Warriors; Morrison never gives an inch as Grandfather and dominates every scene; Simeon even fetches the hated Mr. Poata when there’s an accident on the farm – not him.
The melding and changing of Maori culture, the restlessness of teenagers and the wisdom – and tragedy – of advancing years conclude in a tear-inducing finale, and though it’s languorous at times, this is powerful and evocative stuff. Intense too, such is the power of families, guilt, obligation and love – something everyone can relate to, even if it might have lightened things to give more time to the Romeo and Juliet possibilities here, as Keefe deserved to shine a little more.