★★★★½ - STUFF
- Why this lovingly crafted Kiwi drama demands your attention -
As the final frames of this lovingly crafted drama unspool, there’s a dedication to three Māori women – Merata Mita, Irihapeti Ramsden and Nancy Brunning.
Mita was the pioneering Māori film-maker who first wanted to turn Patricia Grace’s 1992 novel into a movie. Ramsden was a nurse, anthropologist and writer who worked to improve health outcomes for Māori people. And Brunning was the influential actor, writer and director who surely would have been a part of this project had cancer not taken her before her time in late 2019.
Public acknowledgement aside, the film itself is a fitting tribute to the trio, an understated, yet emotion-filled tale of love and loss, of identity and the institutions that try to deny and reshape it and of the power of whānau, all magnificently played out by a fabulous ensemble of homegrown actors of all ages.
As in the book, Cousins is the intertwining stories of Mata, Makareta and Missy. Each has their own journey to take and challenges to face, as events bring them together and then pull them apart.
As a child, Mata is sent away to a home for desolate children, raised as May Parker and under the “care” of a seemingly ruthless, racist guardian. Out of the blue, she’s one day informed that she can go off to her grandparents for the summer. But when she alights from the train, Mata instead comes face-to-face with her Auntie Gloria. That’s also where she meets her cousins, Missy and Makareta, who “show her the ropes”. Despite their attempts to keep Mata, she’s forced back to the home, with her guardian determined that she shouldn’t have any contact with her Māori family again.
As the years pass and Makareta flees an arranged marriage for an independent life in the city, while Missy saves the whānau’s honour by taking her place, the two never forget their kaihana, with Makareta promising Missy to one day bring Mata home.
With its fractured narrative and three actors playing the main characters at different ages, Cousins is a movie that requires your attention. Fortunately, its compelling narrative, evocative sense of space and place and terrific performances demand it.
Directors Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith (who here also adapts her mother-in-law’s book and plays the adult version of Makareta) bring the same immersive style that pervaded their sections of the 2017 portmanteau drama Waru. An opening tracking shot following Mata through the streets of central Wellington does a magnificent job of drawing the viewer into the story, while a penchant for faces that fill the frame, engenders an intimacy that holds your gaze until the story’s last breaths.
Gardiner, Grace-Smith and casting director Tina Cleary also deserve plenty of credit for assembling such a fabulous troupe of actors. While offering yet more evidence of the versatility of Rachel House (who plays the older Missy), Cousins is both a welcome reminder of the depth and breadth of New Zealand’s acting talent and perhaps an indictment that many of these incredible, mainly wāhine, haven’t been given more opportunities to shine on our screens. Tanea Heke and Ana Scotney (the older and adult Mata respectively) particularly impress, while bright futures await the likes of Mihi Te Rauhi Daniels, Keyahne Patrick Williams and Te Raukura Gray, based on this evidence.
Providing an interesting counterpoint to the testosterone-filled borstal tales of 2020’s Savage and the upcoming Come Home in the Dark, Cousins is a timely and vital look at the importance of identity, family and institutional inequalities, some of which shamefully still exist today.
- James Croot, STUFF.CO.NZ
Cousins is now playing at Light House Cinema!