Home Warfare -- New Zealand's `Once Were Warriors' Captures The Pain Of A Toxic Marriage

----------------------------------------------------------------- Movie review

XXX 1/2 "Once Were Warriors," with Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, Julian (Sonny) Arahanga. Directed by Lee Tamahori, from a script by Riwia Brown. Broadway Market Cinemas. "R" - Restricted because of violence, nudity, language. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Great plays often change with the times, reflecting contemporary concerns that may have received less emphasis in their original incarnations.

The latest Broadway revival of "Carousel" concentrated on Billy Bigelow's abusive treatment of Julie Jordan. A Contemporary Theater's early-1990s production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" seemed less drama about the struggle between Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois than the story of a diseased marriage.

Imagine a "Streetcar" in which Stanley and his battered but addicted wife, Stella, raised teenage children. New Zealand's biggest box-office hit, "Once Were Warriors," comes close to doing exactly that. It may lack Tennessee Williams' poetry, but it's just as fierce and genuine a dramatization of a lethal relationship.

The New Zealand version of Stella is Beth, a Maori mother of five whose seasoned way with a beer-bottle cap suggests that she's almost as macho as Jake, her musclebound husband. She's just never as mean. With all the beer flowing in the house, she may get drunk and do things she regrets, but she cares about her kids, especially her vulnerable daughter, Grace, who has a writer's gift.

Jake, on the other hand, never thinks before he hits. Brutishly handsome, magnetic, relentlessly bullying, he keeps Beth in line by seducing her after every beating. She may be able to see him only out of the eye that isn't swollen shut, but he knows she won't end the relationship just because she's ready to be hospitalized.

Lately, however, Beth's mothering instincts have begun to compete with her sexual cravings for Jake, and she's getting harder to win back. Jake responds by becoming more obstinate and careless. He accuses her of being "too bloody lippy" and allows one of his drinking buddies to bring the family to the brink of tragedy.

Adapted from Alan Duff's novel, Riwia Brown's screenplay artfully captures this battle for control while dealing with a number of other issues, including the gradual decimation of Maori pride in the urban jungle (hence the title) and the influence of minority American figures on Maori culture (images of Mike Tyson and Malcolm X dominate this family's bedrooms).

Best of all are the performances. Rena Owen's Beth is a tragic mixture of cultural rebel, marital slave and concerned mother, driven to the edge by the choices she's forced to make. Temuera Morrison's Jake is a testosterone cocktail, dangerous but ultimately puffed-up and pathetic. Off-screen, Morrison is actually rather short and small, but he's been photographed so skillfully that he looks like a New Zealand Schwarzenegger.

Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, who plays Grace, had never acted before, and neither have a couple of the other key players. But under the careful direction of television veteran Lee Tamahori, they all do credible and forceful work.

Since the first of the year, we've seen a series of unsettling wife-beating dramas from England ("Ladybird, Ladybird"), China ("Women From the Lake of Scented Souls," "The Story of Xing-hua") and now New Zealand. Perhaps it's just the coincidence of seeing them all within a two-week period, but taken together they communicate an urgency that seems profoundly universal.