Magik and Rose is a high point in an erratic history of local attempts at making low-budget feature films. The film was a product of Kahukura's ‘no-budget' scheme, produced before the company's high-profile financial demise. The tale of fertility and fortune on the West Coast represented a convincing feature debut for writer/director Vanessa Alexander.
Alexander (who, like Niki Caro and Brad McGann, was a graduate of Melbourne's Swinburne Film And Television School) skillfully structures the parallel stories of her two protagonists and their turbulent maternal desires, balancing this with relationships with an errant spouse, a carefree suitor and a long lost daughter.
With limited rehearsal and shooting time, she elicits precise, empathetic performances from this ensemble. In her Master's thesis on the production Alexander expresses her belief that with a low budget one should cast for performance not marquee value. This contrasted with the view of the NZFCs marketing impresario, Lindsay Shelton, who considered the role of Jordan demanded "beef cake".
Alexander, with producer Larry Parr's support, held out for actor Oliver Driver, then relatively unknown (he would subsequently become Auckland ubiquity: thespian, presenter, compère and TV station owner). Driver's more complex recipe for Jordan — less meat more sugar — complemented what David Stratton in Variety described as the film's "disarmingly sweet treatment".
As with many New Zealand films Magik and Rose inhabits genre (indeed several at once). Magik traverses drama, comedy, melodrama, buddy film and romance. There's a lot of ingredients in the wild food pie, but the tone manages to be coherent and distinctive: a style that might be described as Magik realism.
The charm with which Alexander handles the material means one willingly suspends disbelief at some of the more surreal touches. One of the film's two couples are reunited clothed as Bo Peep and a sheep. The other couple, concluding the climax, is scarcely less absurd: a line dancing cowboy and a spurious fortune teller.
The tag-line read: "Love, Hokitika and 80 million sperm". It's an intriguing mix and at the box office the film achieved moderate success, sustaining a long run in the South Island. This parochialism reflects the film's scale.
Variety described it as, "a delightful female buddy pic with a small town setting and deeply felt emotions... a colourful, lively film that's easy to enjoy", but Magik did not break into offshore markets; its quirkiness not enough to match international expectations.
Intriguingly, the song Cheryl Moana Marie (sung by the film's raggedy barbers' quartet) is reprised in Second-Hand Wedding (2008), a local box office hit, and a film made with equally meagre funds whose confident tone is foreshadowed in the not inconsiderable achievements of Magik and Rose.
Navigating her film through the wilderness of minimal funding speaks volumes also for Alexander's producing instincts. She has since consolidated these as a producer and director of TV drama, eg. Being Eve (2001); and she taught in the Screen Production course at Auckland University's Film and Media Studies department, which spawned such short films as student Leo Woodhead's festival success, Cargo.