Blu-ray review: “Whale Rider” (2002)

“Whale Rider” (2002)


Running Time: 101 minutes

Written by: Niki Caro based on The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera

Directed by: Niki Caro

Featuring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton and Cliff Curtis

Rawiri: “Man might carve his mark on the earth, but unless he’s vigilant, Nature will take it all back.”

The 20th anniversary blu-ray of the New Zealand film “Whale Rider” (2002) was recently released and the one element of this film that stands out immediately is that it has aged extremely well, surely that is the most important thing when it comes to a story that is so important and it invites audiences to look back and remember just how good “Whale Rider” is.

The film’s plot follows the story of Paikea Apirana (“Pai”). The village leader should be the first-born son, a direct patrilineal descendant of Paikea, the Whale Rider, he who rode on top of a whale (Tohora) from Hawaiki. Pai is originally born a twin, but her twin brother and her mother died during childbirth. Pai is female and so technically cannot inherit the leadership. While her grandfather, Koro, later forms an affectionate bond with his granddaughter, carrying her to school every day on his bicycle, he also condemns her and blames her for conflicts within the tribe.

After viewing “Whale Rider” in 2022 the first element that struck me was how the film has not really aged at all, in my mind it could have been filmed this year, a large portion of this is where the film was produced and set in the small East Coast town of Whangara. Not only that but because it is a story that only involves a literal handful of people with little outside influence the idea of technology or fashion and the media are all excluded making this a truly timeless New Zealand film that while it does centre on a Māori community the themes and ideas transcend the story so that any community can identify with what is occurring to these people we are invited to witness. This also helps to explain why the film was embraced internationally at the time it was produced.

There is no doubt that the performances in “Whale Rider” are what hold the narrative together and at the centre is Keisha Castle-Hughes who carries this film on her back without even knowing it. Whilst her voice and actions are quiet, especially with the performances of the other actors, Castle-Hughes at such a young age and in her very first role seems to know how to use her expressions to bring us into her world, in this role she is a joy to watch. The second lead is the character Koro portrayed by Rawiri Paratene who shines here in a role that he embraces and shines and proves why he was such a great stage actor. At times I felt sorry for Keisha Castle-Hughes who more than once is berated or ignored by Paratene.

Directed and adapted by Niki Caro “Whale Rider” is competently constricted and it shows that this is relatively early in her career, it is not a showy film and Caro leans on the discovery of Keisha Castle-Hughes who really makes this entire film. There are scenes that are not correctly focused or are rushed but this ultimately does not matter as the themes and narrative are enough to cover any onscreen mistakes. There are some great moments that are captured lovingly by Caro who films a majority on location and in the outdoors which must have been challenging. The director captures some truly magical moments in widescreen images that you can almost see the relationship between the people, the land and the ocean.

Of course the dogmatic idea of blindly following tradition is something that has been fought against since there were people on the Earth. It is something that we are fighting against today, it is not easy and this film proves that. It illustrates quite clearly that these battles are being waged not only on grand world stages but in small villages in small countries. These fights are old versus young, female versus male, rural versus urban and on and on.

Of course I recommend this film and looking back over the past twenty years I would say this is the most important New Zealand film to be made in the intervening years. This is a film that captures what is great about New Zealand as well as its faults. It is a drama that pulls no punches, there is little humour to break away to, it is not undercut by laughs. It is a movie many film makers could look at see and take some lessons from for their own projects. Having recently seen “Avatar: The Way of Water” (2022) I could not help but think of this film especially in scenes involving a whale like creature and a character swimming with it – something to think about in terms of influence as well as native peoples.

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