The glorious peak achievement of the new feature film culture that burgeoned here in the 70s, Geoff Murphy’s 1983 Utu is unveiled afresh in its ravishing, pictorial splendour. Here it is, our own turbulent history transcribed with cinematic élan – and an elegiac, absurdist vision of the devil’s mischief in paradise.
Utu traces the interwoven trajectories of several vividly etched characters caught up in the wake of the vengeful Te Wheke, whose people have been massacred in a British military blunder. Thirty years ago we thought such a copious panorama of the Land Wars might be where our movies were headed. Now that we have a feature film industry, Utu looks like a miracle.
Dismayed by existing copies, Murphy and DoP Graeme Cowley tracked down the available original elements to be reconstituted in this splendid new, digitised director’s cut. Redux improves in significant small ways on the original New Zealand release. Murphy has snipped a few diversions along the way towards Te Wheke’s capture and trial, and the clearer sense of disparate forces converging gives the film a new, baleful energy. The culminating campfire scene, conducting the rueful business of satisfying utu without setting off another round of recrimination, speaks more clearly than ever to a New Zealand audience now. But it is not the film that has been changed to make that so.