20 Mar 2024

Review: The Convert

From At The Movies, 7:00 pm on 20 March 2024

It’s to the credit of Lee Tamahori’s The Convert that it sets out to tell a story we’re mostly unfamiliar with – the notorious Musket Wars of the early 1800s.

We’re reminded it was when the English imported two things – Christianity and guns.  

The Christian minister of the title is Thomas Munro, played by Guy Pearce. A former soldier, he’s swapped his uniform for the cloth in slightly mysterious circumstances and has arrived at the tiny settlement of Epworth.

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Photo: Screenshot

Along the way, he finds himself between two war-parties, one led by the terrifying chieftain Akatarewa - Lawrence Makoare. 

Akatarewa slaughters the other party – all but Rangimai, the wounded daughter of the other chief. Munro manages to save her and put her under his protection.

It seems inter-tribal warfare has always been a way of life. But with the addition of lethal firearms, the stakes are far higher. In pre-colonial terms, they really are weapons of mass destruction.

Munro takes Rangimai to a local woman, Charlotte, who’s spent a lot of time in both English and Māori society. Her background is somewhat mysterious too. Was there a child, and if so where is she?

One background story in The Convert is the fact that English sailors are making a fortune selling muskets to the local iwi. All sides, they’re not fussy.  

But how risky is it dealing with someone as unpredictable as Akatarewa – clearly modeled on the real-life “Napoleon of the South”, Te Rauparaha?

The other is the unanswered slaughter of Rangimai’s war-party.  She wants utu, but Akatarewa’s army is bigger and better armed than anything her father can muster.

In other words, it’s a bit like High Noon, except Rangimai is Gary Cooper – a woman’s gotta do, and so on – and the peace-loving Reverend Munro is Grace Kelly.

But of course, Pearce is the star, and frankly, we all want a face-off between him and Makoare, the film’s Darth Vader, to mix genres.

On the plus side, it looks great – particularly the scenes in the bush, and it has to be admitted, some gritty, violent battle scenes. Cinematographer Ginny Loane is The Convert’s secret weapon, as she’s been on so many New Zealand films. 

On the minus side, for all the film’s good intentions, it’s let down by a less than gripping storyline.

Supervillain Akatarewa makes a strong entrance, and then disappears for much of the film.  Princess Rangimai is similarly left hanging a lot of the time, while the other woman Charlotte spends most of her time on exposition duty, often in te reo.  I suppose Rachel House was busy.

Pearce does his considerable best with what he’s given, but it’s not enough.  

The trouble is it was a book, turned into one screenplay, which was replaced by another screenplay, with later dialogue added by yet another writer.

This happens with many films, of course, but this time I get the impression something got lost in the various translations.  

Unforgivably Charlotte’s mysteriously absent child doesn’t come to anything.  She just dropped off the story.  No western would have done that.

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