Jamie Wall reviews Jonah, the two-part Three telefeature that follows the life of our most famous All Black, and finds it an effective but mixed retelling of the legend.
Honestly, it’s a wee bit disappointing that the only notable on-screen dramatisation of the All Blacks in recent years was centred on replacement first five Stephen Donald. No disrespect to the man they call Beaver, but you’d think that a team so rich in history and stories well-known to New Zealand would’ve been able to conjure up at least a few more films than one based on possibly the most aesthetically awful game of rugby in the last decade.
In fact, the highest-profile on-screen depiction of the All Blacks, Invictus, isn’t even a Kiwi film. It was very much a Hollywood vehicle by Clint Eastwood, all about how they lost the 1995 World Cup final. That was the tournament that gave us the legend that is Jonah Lomu. His life was one of triumph and tragedy, becoming the most prominent player in the game despite suffering from an illness so severe it’s a medical miracle he was even able to play at all. It eventually took his life four years ago, and Three has committed Lomu’s life story to the screen in its new mini-series Jonah.
Although Lomu escaped what was an often violent and oppressive upbringing in South Auckland to become rugby’s first global superstar, his story is no fairytale. Also, for anyone telling it, his up and down career presents a few curly narrative issues that can’t really be ignored without presenting some glaring holes for a knowledgeable audience. His story of coming straight out of school into the All Blacks wasn’t the direct shot to stardom it appears – his first two tests were losses and Lomu found himself dropped then quickly recalled the next season, which is difficult to explain logically unless the focus is on then-coach Laurie Mains’ motivations at the time, which it’s not.
Mosese Vea’ila as Jonah in the Three telefeature Jonah
Then there’s the fact that he only really regained his incredible 1995 World Cup form in the 1999 tournament, which is one that New Zealand rugby fans would rather forget due to the All Blacks’ shock loss to France in the semi-final. Then his career when he was trying to get back into the All Blacks involved a couple of stints overseas that never really went anywhere. Unlike Donald’s, Lomu’s journey wasn’t one of redemption. It was more the downward slide from unbelievable heights to an inevitable demise.
Writers Pip Hall, Danny Mulheron and Halaifonua Finau have done a pretty admirable job in including all the aspects of it, and haven’t held back in presenting the bad with the good. They’ve also chosen to leap back and forth in time through the earlier and latter years of Lomu’s career, which admittedly does land a little clunkily. But, for anyone expecting this to be a collection of sports montages and sweeping stadium shots, that’s not what Jonah is. It’s a story of a young man’s relationships with those around him who all have different motivations for wanting a piece of Lomu’s life.
The biggest one of these will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the ongoing health issues that ultimately took Lomu’s life at the tragically young age of 40. Dr John Mayhew, played by Craig Hall, provides the surrogate father figure in his life and the one most concerned with his wellbeing. This relationship between a young Pasifika New Zealander and a well-educated, middle-aged Palagi is probably the most interesting aspect of Lomu’s life that hasn’t been delved into in any great depth before, and it’s great to see that it takes the forefront here.
Hall’s portrayal is most likely an amalgamation of a number of doctors who would have treated Lomu. But it’s interesting to examine his own motivation as a sports doctor whose primary concern is to get him back on the field as per the coaching staff’s wishes, which is then overridden by his genuine care for Lomu as a friend.
However, other important relationships aren’t quite as fleshed out as they could be. Phil Kingsley-Jones, Lomu’s affable Welsh manager, seems to pop up out of nowhere despite basically adopting the soon-to-be All Black soon after. Again, this cross-cultural relationship is extremely interesting, but it seems as though the writers had to make a choice between Kingsley-Jones and Mayhew as to who would be the main storyline. It’s a shame, because Lomu and Kingsley-Jones are so diametrically opposed and yet seem so effective together. There is a tension between them that desperately needs more exposition, especially when things come to a head over money.
Every time Lomu enters some sort of social setting you know that it’s just a set-up for him to meet yet another girl (there were plenty – played by Valeria Davis, Melissa Lawlor, Tarikura Kapea and Jacqui Nauman). While the constant relationship hopping gets a bit tiresome, at least it doesn’t shy away from Lomu’s pretty cowardly way of dealing with break-up after break-up.
Mosese Vea’ila is very good in the central role of Lomu, giving a believable and nuanced performance. His resemblance to Lomu isn’t exactly bang on (although that of 15-year-old Dominic Tupou, who gives a great performance as young Jonah, very much is), but it’s especially glaring when intercut with the actual All Blacks footage that the series uses. However, it doesn’t take much to suspend your disbelief and accept Vea’ila as Jonah, especially since he pulls off a series of extremely questionable late 90s hairstyles.
Another important addition is the Tongan language, which the Lomu family speak at home. It’s given a decent degree of prominence, as are the challenges that young men growing up in South Auckland face. Lomu’s young family life isn’t sugar-coated at all, with his father’s harsh discipline dealt with honestly as an exploration into Pasifika families and their complicated relationship with the church.
Despite the best intentions of his parents, it’s unfortunately unsurprising to see his family suffer through gang-related violence. It also shows how badly they want their son to have a better life, when they make sacrifices for Lomu to attend boarding school that sets him up for his rugby career. However, as with Kingsley-Jones, the relationship breakdown between Lomu and his parents (which led to his famous post-marriage breakdown on the Holmes show) isn’t satisfactorily explained.
While it isn’t perfect, Jonah is a story that very much deserves to be told. Given the obvious budget constraints, it might have been more pertinent to focus on a single chapter of his life that people aren’t that familiar with (like early life or post-All Black struggles, where the series is most powerful). He was ultimately the man who unwittingly dragged rugby into the modern era of money and excess, then became the embodiment of how ruthlessly pro sport stops caring about you once you’re no longer required – a pretty pertinent lesson for any aspiring player.