The Convert review – Guy Pearce tries to keep the peace in Māori period drama

<span>‘Persuasively captivating’ … Guy Pearce as British preacher Thomas Munro in The Convert.</span><span>Photograph: Kirsty Griffin</span>
‘Persuasively captivating’ … Guy Pearce as British preacher Thomas Munro in The Convert.Photograph: Kirsty Griffin

Lee Tamahori’s stately period drama is based around a British settlement in New Zealand circa the 1830s, where Guy Pearce’s preacher protagonist attempts to keep the peace – or at least minimise hostilities – between white settlers and Māori tribes, and between the tribes themselves. Spreading the gospel alone would’ve been tough for his character, Thomas Munro, who is told upon arrival that “if you’ve come to win souls for Jesus, you’re going to be busy”. But reinforcing the sixth commandment in this neck of the woods, during this violent time, was surely doomed from the start, no matter how many finely worded monologues the silver-tongued sermoniser delivers.

This generally well made and intelligently staged film opens with images of lush wilderness and misty mountains, and a long shot following a bird that gets swooped and killed by a larger one – an unsubtle visual metaphor for one thing supplanting or destroying another. Through this image Tamahori suggests this process is natural and cyclical, equally applicable perhaps to individual creatures and to empires (a point powerfully made in 2006’s Apocalypto, which begins with Mayans capturing a tribe and ends with the arrival of Spanish ships, announcing a new era).

Tamahori builds a largely credible aura, supported by uniformly strong performances and Gin Loane’s classy cinematography. But The Convert is one of those films with occasional moments that make you go “huh?” One occurs early, when Munro stumbles into a bloody fight between two tribes and – quite unrealistically, I thought – takes down a muscular weapon-wielding warrior with his bare hands. It’s a brief moment, but there must have been a better way to stage it.

The other element that didn’t sit quite right with me is wrapped up in the film’s ending, which of course I won’t disclose. Suffice to say that it requires a transformation I didn’t entirely buy, addressing a question related to the title —concerning who the eponymous convert is, and the nature of their conversion.

Structurally, the film is built around Munro and by turn Pearce’s performance, handing him the lion’s share of big juicy dialogue, including lines touching on a traumatic backstory and mini monologues about peace and war. These speeches are delivered to tribe leaders as well as British settlers, many of the latter nervous about their placement at the edge of the world and harbouring racist attitudes towards Māori.

One exception is Jacqueline McKenzie’s Charlotte, who can speak te reo Māori fluently and becomes Munro’s translator. Like Pearce, McKenzie is persuasively captivating, elegantly poised yet forceful. The introduction of her character enriches the film but reduces its focus on the dynamic between Munro and Rangimai (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne), the daughter of a Māori chief; he saves her from being killed by the chief of a rival tribe, Akatārewa (Lawrence Makoare), by trading her for his horse. Ngatai-Melbourne’s performance is quite something: she’s the film’s most electric presence and brings great intensity to the air, as if every molecule has been charged.

However, The Convert is one of those period productions in which costumes look strangely clean and the overarching atmosphere feels rather polished and manicured. I wonder how the film would’ve looked and felt with a grittier texture, dirtier robes and some gunk on the lenses, evoking a more lived-in feel. These are qualities associated with Tamahori’s famous and still shocking feature debut, 1994’s grimy-looking Once Were Warriors, which also begins with beatific vision of New Zealand countryside – only for the camera to pan left and reveal it’s a chimera: this is an advertising billboard perched above a main road.

Whereas Once Were Warriors was shockingly visceral, the energy of The Convert is mostly a slow, steady rumble. It is well balanced but lacks some spark. Even highly dramatic events often don’t feel much like pronounced inflection points, mellowing out when it should be ramping up – though the action does intensify in the last act, various tensions and plot threads coming to a head fairly conventionally in a big battle scene. But in these moments – and in fact throughout the runtime – the film does a fine job evoking a vivid sense of place, Tamahori and Loane capturing the might and majesty of a stunning part of the world.

  • The Convert is in Australian cinemas from Thursday, with a UK and US release yet to be announced