The Convert‘ is a riveting historical drama

For 500 years, the Māori people, the indigenous people of New Zealand, fought their battles with edged weapons. In the 1800s, with the arrival of the British colonies, the Māori people were introduced to muskets and Christianity.

This is how renowned New Zealand filmmaker Lee Tamahori introduces the audience to the world of The Convert, a story that follows a preacher named Thomas Munro (Guy Pierce) who arrives to a British settlement in New Zealand during the 1930s, after his ship is damaged in a ferocious storm, killing a crew member in the process.

Upon his arrival, Munro finds himself incidentally involved in a bloody battle between two Maori tribes when he witnesses a brutal attack at the hands of Chief Akatawera. Stepping in to stop the brutality from escalating into certain death, Munro manages to convince Akatawera to spare the life of a young Maori woman, Rangimai (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne), who comes from the opposing tribe.

Munro takes Rangimai to the British settlement to heal her wounds but is confronted with ridicule and racism from those he is there to lead as a servant of God, causing Munro to have a crisis of faith and abandon his initial mission in the hopes of ending the war between the two tribes.

Adapted from the diary entries of two young English sailors from this time period, Tamahori and co-writer Shane Danielsen’s fictionalised narrative that is not necessarily bound by historical accuracy, but rather the cultural context of this time in New Zealand’s history. A time in which colonialisation and war ran rampant through many indigenous nations, a hurt still felt by many today.

This historical drama examines the impact of religion and violence in an incredibly visceral way, with Tamahori not shying away from any brutality, both physically and emotionally, and from both the British people and the Māori tribes.

The violence of the film has a weight to it in the sense that murder is a form of power and control. The tribes use the violent attacks to establish their dominance over their desired land, which is often misguidedly confused by the racist British settlers as animalistic acts of savagery.

Instead, Tamahori makes it abundantly clear that the violent instigations of the tribes have far more emotional substance and nuance to it. Whereas the heinous and senseless acts of violence against the indigenous people by the British comes across as far more primitive, stemming from a place of fear and the desire for control, often hiding their blatant racism under the guise of religious fulfilment, something that stirs the faith of Munro throughout the film.

The Convert is a stunning film visually. New Zealand’s naturalistic beauty often juxtaposes the dramatic context of the story. Mountain ranges, coastal areas, and incredibly authentic set design, along with these brilliant wide shots with immense amounts of visually engaging elements bursting out of the screen, bring this world to life.

There is also an epic scale feeling to the war scenes through Tamahori’s direction. AS the warring tribes do their haka’s before engaging in a battle of pure brutality is both exciting in its action, and rife with the emotional tension of a people who have not only warred with each other but have warred with the intruders of their land. The anger is palpably felt on screen.

Anchored by the performances of Guy Pierce and Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, The Convert includes a litany of strong performances. Pierce brings a strong sensibility to Munro, who often wears his crisis of faith, and struggle to come to terms with his own violent history, on his sleeve. The tortured soul of Munro may drive the narrative, but it’s the nuanced performance and silent rage of Ngatai-Melbourne as Rangimai that drives the emotion and cultural aspects of the story.

Embodying the Māori culture through her performance, Ngatai-Melbourne showcases immense pride and pain, something that the film often presents as two elements that are prevalent within the tribes. Her powerhouse performance draws the audience in to the story in a way that adds to the already intimate immersion.

Whilst impactful thematically, occasionally The Convert does suffer from pacing issues and a slightly muddled structure. There are side plots that focus on multiple side characters who are introduced about 30 minutes into the film that, while having reasonably full narrative arcs, don’t always feel they serve a purpose to the overall story outside of giving Munro a few extra things to do with the plot. The time spent on these elements of the story often take away from the far more interesting, fleshed out, and important aspects of the story that surround Maori culture and the historical contexts of the time in which The Convert takes place.

The Convert is a riveting historical drama that not only beautifully brings to life early 1800s Maori culture, and showcases the beauty of New Zealand in the process, it’s also a story of pain and violence, both within their tribes and inflicted by colonisation. The central narrative around Guy Pierce’s Munro is also an interesting exploration into a crisis of faith, making the overall experience of The Convert one worth your time.

The Convert is in cinemas June 20, courtesy of Kismet.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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For 500 years, the Māori people, the indigenous people of New Zealand, fought their battles with edged weapons. In the 1800s, with the arrival of the British colonies, the Māori people were introduced to muskets and Christianity. This is how renowned New Zealand filmmaker Lee...'The Convert' is a riveting historical drama