When lay minister Thomas Munro (Guy Pearce) first reaches the shores of New Zealand in 1830, he does so on a white horse. A religious British man riding into a far-off land on his milky stallion is the picture of a white savior if there ever was one. But director Lee Tamahori has other plans for this well-spoken man of God in his blood-soaked period drama “The Convert,” his first feature film outing since 2016’s soapy “The Patriarch.”
From the onset, the stunning vistas, handsomely photographed by Gin Loane, signal the underlying theme of the narrative: Survival belongs to the strongest, a precept that grows in significance as the plot progresses. The fierce introduction to this unforgiving environment is a shot of a large bird making a smaller one its prey in one swift motion. Through such imagery, Tamahori aims to imbue the violence that permeates with a primal quality, obeying only its own sacred rules beyond the comprehension of the unwelcomed colonizers, whose standing here is that of tenants paying rent to the Māori owners.
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Munro’s curiosity for this “new world,” soon shifts to bewilderment when he exchanges a prized possession to save the life of Rangimai (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne), a young Māori woman caught at the forefront of a war between rival tribes. Her father, chief Maianui (Antonio Te Maioha), is engaged in an ongoing conflict with the ruthless leader of another faction, Akatārewa (Lawrence Makoare). While caring for a distraught Rangimai, the minister arrives to perform his spiritual duties in the newly founded settlement of Epworth for his fellow Brits — who collectively carried their worst instincts across oceans. Open distain for the Māori, and a murder, push Munro to turn away from those he thought akin.
Pearce maintains a tranquil demeanor throughout this subdued performance. His Munro observes in silence, sketches images in his notebook, without ever trying to impose his beliefs on the Māori. But the sophistication afforded to the pensive preacher is not equally reflected in all the portrayals of the Māori characters. For example, Rangimai at times seems rendered through an infantilizing lens. In spite of this, Ngatai-Melbourne (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) stands out for its rageful vitality, even if one wishes she had been given the chance to move through the story with more nuance.
Co-written with Shane Danielsen, the script often over-simplifies the humanity and the cruelty of both the Indigenous people and their European counterparts. Among the most uninspired of its many well-worn beats, Munro’s brief romance with Charlotte (Jacqueline McKenzie), a British woman who helps translate between him and his reluctant hosts, feels more like filler than emotionally substantial.
Appalled that British merchants profit from the in-fighting selling muskets to both sides, Munro advocates for peace, and even opens up about his own murderous past in a tearful scene that sees Pearce stretching his dramatic range within the confines of his character’s rugged persona. But his moral qualms and the Christian concept of mercy don’t carry much weight here. Neither does his idea of redemption through remorse, rather than the Māori’s vision of an honorable revenge.
Still, Munro tries to communicate to them that their mutual destruction is precisely what the British want. And what Maianui and Akatārewa convey explicitly is that they are not acting with the British in mind. The exposition of this cross-cultural conundrum is where “The Convert” is at its most compelling. That the Māori consider emerging victorious at all cost their divine duty, while the Europeans’ motivation responds to mostly to greed, is a key distinction between their opposing worldviews.
The accuracy that Tamahori appears to pursue in the edged weapons, firearms and attire on display, as well as in the ritualistic fearlessness that Māori exhibit during a climactic all-out clash that results in a gruesome battlefield, makes one wish the film had gone deeper into the queries it poses about the influence the British had in the local power struggles through the perspective of the Māori. When the dust settles, a new chapter begins for the original people of these latitudes, the implication seems to be that now Maianui considers peace a viable option because of Munro’s persistence. Idealistically reductive as the idea that they both learned from each other is, it at least poses an intriguing speculation.
One final note, which hopes to reaffirm the notion that the white protagonist has found closer kinship with the Māori than with his fellow Brits, rings slightly hackneyed. Still, there’s just enough of an interesting theme and strong production value (it’s impossible not to succumb to the breathtakingly imposing landscapes) to earn “The Convert” some grace.
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