Since his breakthrough 1994 feature Once Were Warriors, a troubling and fiery coming-of-age story indie set in New Zealand’s Maōri community, Lee Tamahori has almost exclusively resided in the realm of pulpy B-grade action cinema. From directing Pierce Brosnan’s final Bond in Die Another Day to Ice Cube in XXX: State of the Union to making a Guy Ritchie-lite actioner about Saddam Hussein’s son (The Devil’s Double), Tamahori has a strong familiarity with cheesy espionage plotlines and passable entertainment. Both sides of Tamahori’s filmography come together in his latest historical epic The Convert––results are expectedly mixed.
Presented in a decidedly prestige manner with sweeping camerawork and a plotline that decides to burn slow in building the relationships of its characters, The Convert tells of John Munro (Guy Pearce), a British preacher who is brought to the settlement of Epworth to help serve the community of settlers there. This settlement is right near two warring Maori tribes, one led by Maianui (Antonio Te Maioha) and the other led by the ruthless Akatarawa (Lawrence Makoare). Munro saves the life of Rangimai (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne), Maianui’s daughter, from the clutches of Akatarawa’s warriors and thus begins to form a friendship with her and Maianui––much to the chagrin of settlers who feel such close contact is not only unseemly for a white man, but also may put the settlement in danger.
The film’s tone is dour, highlighted by Pearce’s gruff and grunting persona. He is a man of a Christian God but so quick to help out the locals that there are rumors around his intention. This plot thread is worked well into the film for a later, much more profound reveal, but The Convert is mostly concerned with churning through predictable plot toward the inevitable Maori war setpieces that Tamahori is most interested in directing. Munro represents nearly the same sort of idealistic vision we see in John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, but especially in Father Gabriel of Roland Joffe’s The Mission––the man of God who seeks colonization through more morally righteous means. Because he puts down his gun and offers the noble path of peace through his God and his love, the natives may also be saved, notably from themselves.
Tamahori presents an interesting subversion of the white-savior complex. The film is based loosely on both Hamish Clayton’s novel Wulf and the Musket Wars, battles exacerbated and perpetuated by the colonial sales of muskets to Maori tribal leaders in exchange for livestock and timber. While Munro begs the Maori leaders to give up the guns and choose peace, Maianui and Akatarawa are steadfast in the Maori beliefs that war and conflict have a transcendent role to play. Munro’s violent past comes storming into the present right before the war and he is seen as a hypocrite. In the end, the righteousness of his path is considered a selfish act.
The cinematography by Gin Loane––ravishing New Zealand setting with crystal turquoise waters, lush green jungles, blue skies, and dark island mountains––almost seems effortless. It’s nearly impossible not to feel the beauty of the locale, especially on a big screen. However, the action and general direction of the drama come across as flat and choppy. While Tamahori’s Hollywood films are lined with action setpieces that take many liberties with both temporal logic and (certainly) physics, there seems a desperation in The Convert trying to depict everything with a sense of not only authenticity but grace. This is, on one hand, understandable––Tamahori is of Maori ancestry and is telling a story about Maori conflict––but he has never been a director who has excelled at grace. His action films and sequences have always thrived on the overdone and hammy: precisely what he was called to do. In the pursuit of a prestige picture, Tamahori leaves The Convert awkwardly stumbling between a swashbuckling action film and a mild-mannered costume drama.
The Convert premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.