Once Were Warriors Review

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A family descended from Maori warriors is bedeviled by a violent father and the societal problems of being treated as outcasts.


The much-heralded fact about this hard-hitting helping of domestic violence is that it is the biggest grossing movie ever in New Zealand. A fact which, when taking into account that its central theme of a housewife’s efforts to free herself from her husband’s frequent beatings doesn’t make for a cosy evening’s viewing down the multiplex, is quite an achievement.
Beth (Owen) is a Maori by birth who, having sacrificed the warmth of her native village for love, has been married to Jake (Morrison) for 15 years, and still loves him, despite his violent drunken rages and blatant sexism. Their three teenage children are affected by this domestic situation in different ways: while their two sons retreat to the comforts of delinquency and street gangs, daughter Grace (Kerr-Bell) becomes so introverted that her presence as the tragic protagonist in this dysfunctional family circle is quickly established.
The real discovery here, however, is the hitherto unknown Owen, who delivers a performance of towering proportions, one moment bristling with pure anger, the next inflamed with passion for her bullying husband. Debut director Tamahori lends a stylised air to proceedings, along with insights into both Beth’s Maori village upbringing and her current existence in a similar ghetto-ised area.
Where the film loses its footing is in its attempts at worthiness (most notably in a sub-plot between the delinquent son and his social worker mentor). However, while not exactly escapist viewing, this avoids becoming the Ken Loach Down Under experience it could so easily have been thanks to an unexpectedly upbeat and powerful outcome that suggests a brighter future for all concerned.

Brutal, powerful and emotionally ripping.