THE STORY – As the tall ship carrying preacher Thomas Munro (Guy Pearce) arrives on the shores of the settler town of Epworth, he enters a world he could scarcely have imagined. Despite the growing colonial British presence in the early 19th century, Aotearoa — the South Pacific islands that would become known as New Zealand — is still very much dominated by Māori. The settlement itself is a ramshackle assortment of buildings, and heavily influenced by the political struggles between two warring Māori iwi or tribes. Munro soon learns to navigate the complex dynamics at play within the community and with the iwi. Epworth itself leases its land from the local iwi headed by Maianui (Antonio Te Maioha) whose nation struggles with the aggressive might of his counterpart, Akatarawa (Lawrence Makoare), whose ruthlessness in claiming territories threatens Epworth’s tenuous stability. Munro finds himself in Maianui’s good favor after he saves his daughter Rangimai’s life. Bonded by their experience, Munro and Rangimai share a desire to see peace come to the region, and they venture into Akatarawa’s territory in an effort to end the conflicts despite the seeming impossibility of their mission. Tensions escalate to a climactic battle that ultimately forges a new path forward for both iwi and Munro himself.
THE CAST – Guy Pearce, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Antonio Te Maioha, Jacqueline McKenzie & Lawrence Makoare
THE TEAM – Lee Tamahori (Director/Writer) & Shane Danielsen (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 119 Minutes
Nowadays, suppose a film isn’t being adapted from a previous existing animation, a comic book, or a video game. In that case, we often look more and more frequently to history for inspiration or source material. In recent years, perhaps in an attempt to find unique and original stories to tell, it seems as though filmmakers have put out feelers in search of events or individuals of the past that could serve as intriguing subjects to build a film around or about. It appears this is the case for director Lee Tamahori’s latest film, “The Convert,” an action-packed work of historical fiction that premiered at TIFF 2023. With the film, Tamahori has created a work of historical fiction that educates and very much entertains, but not without stumbling on its journey to do so.
“The Convert” stars Guy Pearce as British minister Thomas Munro, a tortured and redemption-seeking ex-military man. He’s attempting to find his footing and start a new life in early 19th century Aotearoa – the South Pacific islands of what would become known as New Zealand, on the British settlement of Epworth. After witnessing the slaughter of innocent tribe members due to Chief Akatarewa, Munro quickly finds himself caught in the middle of tribal wars and becomes a viable pawn in a sense, communicating with and attempting to reason with both sides to find peace. He believes his religious beliefs and teachings could be the solution, but the Māori are not interested in anything other than revenge. Munro ends up trading his horse to spare the life of a rival Chief’s daughter, Rangimai, catapulting his involvement into something he cannot back out of. Not only this, but Munro realizes the severity of contempt and paranoia the British colony feels regarding the native people, and he feels a weighty responsibility is on his shoulders to educate and find common ground somewhere between all the separate groups.
The film takes place at a tense time in history, filled with continuous wars between the Native Māori tribes and the ever-growing presence of British colonialism, slowly seeping itself into the country and its Native people, taking permanent root. This is why concerns of an overbearing white savior lens immediately come to the surface when the film nearly opens with a shot of white British preacher Munro galloping gallantly along a foreign beach on a powerful white horse. For the most part, though, Tamahori takes the film in a different direction than it may initially appear, trying to focus more on the impact colonizers had on the tribes and how they profited off their wars and the destruction of the Māori people by selling arms. This mainly saves the film from being a tone-deaf, preachy swing at retelling an era of history.
The cast’s performances are overall sufficient, with Pearce giving a serviceable portrayal of the heroic British minister. His performance teeters on forgettable and dramatically pales compared to his standout costar, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, who plays Chief Maianui’s fierce daughter, Rangimai. She absolutely explodes with raw emotion throughout, openly grieving and seething at the violence she and her people are faced with. She forms a unique bond with the widowed Charlotte (Jacqueline McKenzie), who was once accepted as one of the Māori people herself due to her marriage to a man from the tribe. Charlotte speaks their language, knows their rituals, and has a deeper understanding of people, which in turn makes it so she’s able to act as a link between the two cultures. Jacqueline tackles this important role with grace, respect, and an authentic and believable portrayal.
The script was written by Shane Danielsen as well as Tamahori himself and is based on historical events as well as loosely on a story by Michael Bennet. The writing is adequate, and the story is interesting enough, with the historical context it’s based on serving as enough propulsion to keep the events throughout the film immersive and intriguing. The characters have enough substance and develop just enough to be passable. However, the interworking relationships between the Māori people and the English colony would have benefitted from more focus. Yes, the tribes battled each other indeed, but besides a young Māori boy’s mysterious murder while in the British settlement, the extent of the impact the colonizers had on the native people isn’t as weighty a topic as it probably should be. In contrast, the decision to have a large portion of the dialogue in the land’s native language of Māori only aided in benefitting the passionate actors who were able to perform in their native tongue.
The film is a visual feast for the eyes as the stunning and elaborate Māori culture is put on full display. Their rituals and customs are showcased with high regard, and there’s an immense attention to detail in the set design and wardrobe, both of which present how the Māori people presented themselves and their property back in the day. From the intricate wood carvings that border tribal grounds to delicate jade necklaces laden with meaning, there’s obvious care and time spent on the smaller details. Stunning, atmospheric cinematography captures a slice of the beauty that the wilds of New Zealand have to offer. From dense forests, breathtaking beaches, and vast, empty wilderness, it’s hard not to be immersed in the land’s natural beauty.
“The Convert” is ultimately a solid historical action and drama flick that will do its job just fine. What it lacks in story or effectiveness, it more or less makes up in some grounded performances and mesmerizing imagery of 19th-century New Zealand. The subjects at hand are treated with respect, and the standout performance by Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, of Māori descent herself, hoists the film up a notch just by her work alone. She gives her all in an unforgettable performance in a film that may otherwise get lost amongst the many others like it that are solid as well but may just be a bit too similar.