New Zealand films usually fall into one or two categories – and usually fail to offer many points of difference.

From murky history pieces lecturing on how the country wronged its indigenous settlers to some dramas that never quite make it to dizzying heights of feeling more than TV fare, the industry as a whole has shied away from mystery.

Step forward Nic Gorman’s elegiac, intriguing and thoroughly impressive Human Traces to pick up the mantle and throw down a gauntlet.

In this moody and evocative piece set 750 kms south of New Zealand on an island (though in truth, with its universal themes, and stripped of its accents, it could be anywhere), Mark Mitchinson’s Glenn is monitoring the eco-system. Sarah, his wife of 30 years his junior, (Sophie Henderson, achingly isolated and bristling for a return to home-life) doesn’t believe Glenn’s work is succeeding; her bond with him clearly fraying when we join them.

Their world is changed by the arrival of Vinnie Bennett’s Pete, a DoC ranger whose arrival, although expected, is fraught with suspicion.

To say more about Human Traces is to remove its ingenue and central mystery; it’s a knotty and – for the large part – gripping tale.

Gorman’s twist-and-turns script pulls and pushes his actors in ways that are challenging, but it’s the central premise of the story split into three pieces and from different points-of-view which give Human Traces its unique selling point. 

Its psychological edges completely grab you in the second act, as everything you thought you knew is pulled away. Cleverly disorienting audiences is part of its Rashomon effect, and while Human Traces hints at a lack of humanity on show, what envelops the central trio is explicitly human at its core.

As the gradual layers reveal themselves, Gorman sets scenes to the crashing waves, their churning and thrashing signifying a change in the emotional tides. He makes great fist of the rugged terrain of the Otago coastline, revelling in it to convey the script’s increasing confidence.

At times, Human Traces is a sparse film, but it’s also one which soars magnificently as it plays out in front of audiences. Moody, suspenseful and expertly executed, it is perhaps one of New Zealand’s finest cinematic 2017 experiences.

Human Traces     

Cast: Sophie Henderson, Mark Mitchinson, Vinnie Bennett
Director: Nic Gorman

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