Review: UTU Redux

Last night I attended a screening of ‘Utu: Redux’ as part of the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival, and what better place to experience a classic Kiwi film than in Dunedin’s beautiful Regent Theatre.  As a semi-obsessive aficionado of historical costume drama it would be wrong for me to not give the re-release of Utu a well deserved shout-out.

Geoff Murphy’s ‘Utu’ first hit the big screen in 1983, telling the story of a Māori scout who seeks revenge for the massacre of his village by colonial forces.  Thirty years later the original work has been digitally restored and re-released as a new director’s cut ‘UTU Redux’.

The characters and events are fictional but loosely based on Te Kooti’s War, along with influences from other incidents; such as the notable scene where lead character Te Wheke kills a church minister and continues the sermon with the decapitated head alongside him.  This scene was very obviously inspired by the murder of missionary Carl Volkner.

What I like best about ‘Utu’ is while the characters might be fictional they all come across as having very real motivations – be it the conflicted kupapa, the displaced settler or the career driven colonial officer.  At times in the original film some of these characters verge on almost becoming caricatures but I feel this has been addressed in the re-release with the selected cutting of some dialogue.

Some scenes can be confronting, bordering on distressing.  This shouldn’t be surprising as the East Coast wars that Utu is based on were arguably some of the most brutal to be fought on these shores.  Thankfully the film including plenty of lighter moments in the form of dark humour, my favourite examples being the scene where the ‘rebels’ take a break to play the piano and the supply wagon scene which includes one of the most memorable lines in Kiwi cinema:

“I’ve only been a Pakeha for one minute, and already I hate you Māori”.

I was curious to see that many reviews such as this one on TVNZ’s website, this one here on Flicks and this one on all referred to the setting of ‘Utu’ as ‘the land wars’, ‘the Māori land wars’ or the ‘Pakeha and Māori land wars’ – evidence perhaps that while the New Zealand Wars is all but universally accepted by academics as the most suitable name for the conflicts it is a name that is still struggling to go mainstream.

Sadly New Zealand has had precious few recent attempts to tell our history on the big screen, with Vincent Ward’s ‘River Queen’ being the most notable recent exception which also told a fictional story set during the New Zealand Wars.

The most common reason cited for there not being more historical costume dramas produced in New Zealand is of course the cost.  In my opinion this makes some of our classic cinematic treasures even more valuable – and even more deserving of the treatment given to ‘UTU Redux’.  Personally though, despite the odds I’m still holding out hope for a sequel.  ‘UTU 2’ certainly has a ring to it.  Or perhaps even a prequel – as I’d love to see a twenty-first century interpretation of the Northern War or the Waikato Invasion.  One can live in hope….

In the meantime, keep an eye out for any opportunities to see ‘UTU Redux’ at a theatre near you – it is a rare chance to see a classic Kiwi costume drama on the big screen.  You can also check out the trailer here and visit NZOnscreen to watch the ‘Making Utu’ documentary.

© Lemuel Lyes

4 replies »

  1. I saw Utu originally in 1983 in Napier – I think it premiered there. Murphy lived at Waimarama, of course; and it was filmed up the Taupo road. Having just been through a monolithic ‘re-write’ exercise myself for that NZ history it will be interesting to see how Murphy has re-thought the movie.

    There’s absolutely a sharp divide between what historians call the wars and the popular way they are seen and named. It may never be resolved. Part of the issue, I think, is that they had so many different aspects to them. All were consequential on the assertion by the British of power over New Zealand, a function of the colonial mentality of the day; so they could reasonably be called ‘colonial wars’. But at a slightly higher level the nature of the various struggles varied. The northern war was a consequence of the way the relationships were panning out to Maori disadvantage. Wellington and Taranaki were directly land issues (proxy for power, of course). The Waikato war was a flat out power struggle, and the Maori name for them is quite apt. Later things got more complex; the wars were more internalised to New Zealand, even fracturing iwi; and there is some argument to call them a ‘civil war’, at least in terms of the way iwi were divided.

    • The complexity of the wars certainly seems to make it more difficult to find a suitable name for them. The East Coast wars fictionalized in ‘Utu’ seem to have had as many differences with the previous conflicts as they did similarities, both in terms of the reasons for the fighting, the participants and the strategies both sides employed.

      I’d like to think that one answer to demystifying the wars is by including them more often in the media and popular culture – through works such as Utu. It was disappointing to see the recent 150th anniversary of the Waikato Campaign have so little mention in the media, and it is a shame that the wars are seldom the subject of television dramas and feature films – although they can be a controversial topic and obviously the cost to produce such works is considerable.

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