Whale Rider


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Whale Rider
"Deftly avoiding cliches, it interweaves traditional and modern elements so smoothly that one scarcely notices the contrast."

When encountering critical acclaim for a film like this, one always worries that part of it is due to the work being perceived as a worthy cause - not that it's a bad thing to take an interest in minority cultures and traditions, but a good film needs to be able to stand on its own merits. Whale Rider is such a film, and those who go to see it will not be disappointed. Its central coming of age and ostracisation themes extend beyond the personal to reflect issues in Maori society and its relation to the rest of the world. Its studies of character, meanwhile, would be as relevant in any context.

At the centre of this tale is is Paikea (brilliant newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes) whose very birth was a cause for sorrow, as it coincided with the death of her mother and twin brother. Though she maintains a good relationship with her absent father, she is raised by her grandparents, and it is her grandfather, strong and taciturn and lonely, whom she admires most of all. He, however, wants a boy who can become a new leader for their tribe, and Paikea struggles to understand when her attempts to learn the masculine behaviours he seems to want only cause him to reject her.

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Alongside this, we see the difficulties in his relationship with his sons, and it's clear that the strength of affection he has developed for his granddaughter itself makes it harder for him to bear the risks associated with letting her take on a male role. Rawiri Paratene gives a powerful performance as the old man whose life has been dominated by duty, and there's impressive support from the rest of the cast.

Many characters suffer rejection and broken homes, yet the film never sentimentalises this; it maintains the sense of determination, hope and expectation summed up in Paikea. Dazzled by mythology, the girl aspires to be a prophet, yet it is her perseverance in more mundane matters which inspires those around her.

Whale Rider is a film which grips right from the start and never lets go. Though it features some stunning landscape photography and evocative Maori design work, it is the domestic interiors which create the strongest visual impression, courtesy of Heavenly Creatures' production designer Grant Major. This helps the film to develop a sense of place vital to our understanding of its characters' commitment to their heritage. Deftly avoiding cliches, it interweaves traditional and modern elements so smoothly that one scarcely notices the contrast; it is apparent only in the faces of boys who find it difficult to take their traditional responsibilities seriously.

Although the story is often harrowing, it is lightened by humour and a constant awareness of natural beauty. A brave film to present to a modern audience, Whale Rider is something special.

Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2007
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Whale Rider packshot
Granddaughter of Maori chief in modern New Zealand suffers rejection for her gender.
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Angus Wolfe Murray **1/2

Director: Niki Caro

Writer: Niki Caro, based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera

Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Rawinia Clarke, Tammy Davis, Grant Roa

Year: 2002

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: New Zealand/Germany


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