Reviews and notes
2013 (Restored version premiere) Wellington
is one of the few movies that depicts the Maori land wars, which many did so in the context of a high school history class. It’s also famous as a film that subverts easily-made presumptions about its protagonists and their trajectories. All these elements combine to make it a prime candidate for big screen re-discovery, and watching this new restored edit overseen by director Geoff Murphy and DoP Graeme Cowley play out in a theatre provided an experience filled with the kind of cinematic grandeur that has all but disappeared from Kiwi cinema – if you don’t count a certain fantasy franchise. Utu Redux
is also an often disarmingly intimate experience which moves forward by pushing all of its characters to increasingly difficult places. The lyrical style of the film has aged very well, and it now projects a Malick-ian appreciation for the awful duality of nature and violence. It even somehow finds an organic place for a classic ‘cheeky’ Geoff Murphy sex scene. The complexity of the film’s politics feel more welcome than ever, coming at a time when audiences are embracing layered anti-heroes and less prescriptive storytelling. The late, great Bruno Lawrence is as wonderfully bedraggled as ever, but Anzac Wallace’s stoic, unflinching power dominates the film.
– Dominic Corry, flicks.co.nz.
If there was a renaissance, or ‘new wave' of NZ film making, then Geoff Murphy was riding it, and ride it he did, tall in the saddle with this vastly ambitious, but sometimes vexing ‘puha western'.
The film's antecedents are clear. Murphy wears his love for Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, and the countercultural attitudes of 1970s Hollywood cinema on his sleeve. But the cultural markers of NZ history poke through all the same, and give the picture a defining sense of uniqueness.
Released in 1983, when memories of Bastion Point and the Springbok Tour were fresh, Utu
's mix of unresolved colonial conflict and Murphy's energetic direction promised to be as potent as the quadruple-barreled shot-gun Williamson (Bruno Lawrence) brandishes in the film.
The zeitgeist was ripe for a revisionist, genre-challenging epic made from our own muddy, blood-stained whenua. After the one-two punch of Murphy's Goodbye Pork Pie
(1981) and Roger Donaldson's Smash Palace
(1982), there was a palpable air of expectation. The indications were that this was going to be a breakthrough picture.
It had scale, action and adventure, played out in the wild places of the volcanic plateau; a big rich symphonic score, composed by John Charles, and performed by our very own national orchestra; it had a bunch of well-loved Kiwi thespians, led by the immortal Bruno Lawrence, who revels in the role of the avenging farmer. Most of all it had Anzac Wallace — union delegate-turned-actor (starring as guerilla leader Te Wheke) — and what an impact he made in his sporadic career.
There's much to like in the film, starting with the raw subject matter — which was inspired by real characters and events. A church scene where a Vicar loses his head, and the attack on the Williamson farm are both outstanding sequences, showing what Murphy was capable of. There is great energy and flair in the action scenes.
In The New Yorker
, legendary critic Pauline Kael gave Utu
an extended rave. She praised Murphy as a filmmaker with an eye for "a deracinated kind of hip lyricism", and argued that he seemed to be directing with a grin on his face. Wrote Kael: "We know this basic story of colonialism from books and movies about other countries, but the ferocity of these skirmishes and raids is played off against an Arcadian beauty that makes your head swim."
There are also moments of Murphy's trademark laconic humour, for example when a post-coital Kura (Tania Bristowe) remarks "didn't you say your gun could fire seven times without stopping?"
's scale is impressive and Murphy crams it all into lavishly shot and composed scenes: threatened frontiersmen, disgruntled natives, lusty wahine, bible-bashing priests, idealistic upper crust officers and traitorous kupapa.
Murphy's work had always existed in the space between popular film genres, and a specifically Kiwi sensibility. But for the first time, he arguably failed to bridge the gap. Utu
's shotgun approach to the great New Zealand (colonial) film ultimately leaves the narrative feeling episodic and tangled in the supplejack.
Yet, despite local critical ambivalence, the New Zealand public responded well; for a time it was Aotearoa's second highest grossing film after Murphy's Goodbye Pork Pie
's revisionist take on 'The New Zealand Wars' helped rewire popular perceptions of our history, thanks partly to complexly motivated characters (where the good guys aren't necessarily the boys in blue, and the bad guys aren't always in harakeke skirts).
Roger Horrocks later wrote that although it was an uneven film, Utu
"succeeded in stirring up more discussion of New Zealand history than any recent book has done."
was the second Kiwi film officially invited to Cannes (out of competition in 1983; The Scarecrow
had been invited to the Director's Fortnight the year before). Variety reviewed it promisingly: "Murphy has produced powerful images and strong performances. Action sequences, special effects, and visual exploitation of a rugged, high country location in central New Zealand are superb."
In early 1984 Utu
producer Don Blakeney asked Murphy to recut the film to make it "more accessible", arguing that a big sale to France hinged on doing so. The recut has been referred to as 'The Director's Cut', although Geoff Murphy had nothing to do with it, and later regretted allowing it to happen. In a 1985 interview for Onfilm
magazine he remarked: "I declined to recut it myself because I was absolutely exhausted and saturated with it. I couldn't face it."
The film was shortened by almost 20 minutes, and the final fireside court martial scene intercut throughout the narrative. The consensus on this cut is that it is tidier, but lacks the personality of the original version.
It would be years until others seriously essayed the territory of the colonial wars. Unfortunately, Vincent Ward's River Queen
walked into some of the same holes. The challenge of large scale period recreations on low Kiwi budgets, and of reconciling story conventions with a sense of historic truth that's both respectful and accurate, remains unfulfilled.
Nevertheless in Utu
there is a true raw excitement to be had in the risk; at seeing on screen the archetypes of the Western turned to post-colonial New Zealand themes for the first time. It is passionate filmmaking, and with talents like Murphy, Lawrence, Cowley and Wallace firing, a propulsively engaging attempt.
Thirty years after its initial release, Utu Redux
introduced the film to a new generation of Kiwi cinema-goers. In 2013, the "enhanced and restored" cut, produced by Utu
cinematographer Graeme Cowley with Murphy and editor Mike Horton, premiered at the Wellington opening night of the NZ International Film Festival, and won rave reviews.
The programme guide to the Festival touted the relevance of this "elegiac, absurdist vision of the devil's spirit in paradise", with the final campfire scene speaking "more clearly than ever to a New Zealand audience now".
Said Geoff Murphy in 1982: "When you make a film about racial conflict, you are living dangerously. When you make a film about racial conflict in a country that congratulates itself on what a successful bi-cultural society it is, the danger heightens."
- Costa Botes, NZ On Screen, 2 July 2013.
It is now over five years since I saw on television an almost unrecognisable shadow of Utu
, and was so shocked at its condition I embarked on the quest to recover the film. I remembered clearly the vibrancy and power of the original film we had created in the winter of 1982. Often working in the mist, rain and cold nights, we indulged our filmmaking enthusiasm on the considerable promise that this film held for us. What we achieved at that time was memorable. It was important to get it back to its original condition.
When the restoration was underway it quickly became complex with the discovery that the negative had been disassembled and damaged, with outtakes lost when it was edited into a revised version. Geoff Murphy's original film had been essentially lost. There was an inter-positive but it was in bad condition. On the other hand, the film stock I had used was new generation high-speed fine grain Fujifilm — a jump ahead of the other stocks of the time — and what we had of this original negative was in remarkably good condition. Locating as much of this negative as possible became the prime focus. As the original Utu
release prints were three-generation copies, using this for the restoration would mean the audience would be seeing the film directly from the original negative for the first time in all its glory.
This realisation started the hunt to locate the original negative and moved us into the editing room to analyse what we had and what was required to get back to the original. The magic of this stage was getting Geoff into the editing room and working with him again along with the original editor, Michael Horton. Between them they had been involved with a lot of feature films in the 30 years since Utu
, and had fine-tuned their craft skills considerably.
Into the editing machine we loaded scans of the best material for each version of the film, the inter-negative for the original version, the original re-edited negative for the revised version, and added to this the fragments of original negative as it was located and restored. Later numerous elements of the soundtrack were added to this mix.
Geoff and Michael, aided by Jonno, Woodford-Robinson, worked through the elements rebuilding the original, checking whether the revised version did anything better (it didn't), and then applying some of the knowledge gained over the years to refine the original where possible. From the start the vibrancy of the original film jumped out of the screen, demanding us to bring it alive again.
The refinements made to the editing were usually just matters of elegance; there were now better ways to do some things. Sometimes we used technology only now available to enhance the storytelling — little movements in a frame to cover for a close up or something we didn't have time for in the original shoot. After the editing and ongoing restoration there was additional tracklaying and a new 5.1 surround sound mix. What we effectively had now was the "original enhanced director's cut version" which we named Utu Redux
. [All this work was done at Park Road Post.]
The premiere of Utu Redux
at the New Zealand International Film Festival in June 2013, on the huge Embassy screen and superb sound system, was wonderful. After much searching we had located the film's star Anzac Wallace, but sadly a number of notable actors and crew had passed on. The critical acclaim for the restored film was overwhelming.
- Graeme Cowley, Aro Media, November 2015.
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