Review: Once Were Warriors (1994)

Once Were Warriors (1994)

Directed by: Lee Tamahori | 99 minutes | drama | Actors: Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, Julian Arahanga, Taungaroa Emile, Rachael Morris Jr., Joseph Kairau, Cliff Curtis

One of the most faithful book adaptations. That’s the best way to describe ‘Once Were Warriors’. Author Alan Duff’s novel has been admirably adapted into a film by director Tamahori. Like the book, the print offers a glimpse into the life of a Maori family torn by trouble.

The opening scene of the film immediately sets the tone: violence and terror dominate the life of the family. Father Jake Heke is a gruff man who is verbally no match for his wife. To compensate, he uses his fists to control his wife Beth. The children are the victims. The eldest son has found a new home in a youth gang, the second eldest son falls into crime. Daughter Gracie (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) is an intelligent girl who has some chance of a bright future with her talent for writing, but that does not go as hoped.

As in the novel, the film does not disguise the use of violence. The shocking thing about these scenes is that the violence appears completely unexpectedly and is shown in all horror. In addition to violence, director Tamahori also clearly shows the consequences of aggression. The pain, impotence and the breakdown of a family remain on the retina when the film is over. The film shows a realistic portrait of a group of people who are dependent on each other and have to fight to keep their heads above water.

The great thing about Tamahori’s film is that he doesn’t tell the story in black and white. Despite the pitfalls, the stereotyping of good and evil, the director skillfully avoids the clichés of the drama genre. Tamahori pays equal attention to both the father and mother. In addition, the casting of Owen and Morrison is very well chosen. The two actors are well attuned to each other and their interplay clearly contains a certain form of chemistry. Tamahori has filmed the drama in such a way that the viewer can clearly see the mistakes of both characters. It is not a matter of good and evil, every character has his or her bad traits. The viewer is guided into the story as a kind of voyeur.

After all, the actors play great. Temuera Morrison clearly shows his great talent in the film. Despite the brutal, disgusting violence his character uses, you can’t just label him a “bad guy”. Under the facade of brutal macho hides a tormented man who does not know how to deal with his behavior and past. The nuanced hybrid between violence and vulnerability is strongly portrayed by Morrison. Body language, raised voices and his gaze: Morrison shows himself to be a gifted actor who does not have to hide behind unnecessary words.

Rena Owen also plays Heke’s wife very strongly. It is clear why she fell for Heke, but also why she has to divorce this man right now. Her character wants to be a good mother to her children, but her pride and alcohol addiction cannot prevent the contact between her and her offspring from slowly deteriorating. The children are well played by the other actors.

‘Once Were Warriors’ is a powerful film that tackles difficult themes such as domestic violence and racial origin. The film shows the desolate life of a family that is trying to find its place in the modern consumer society. But a life without money and a forgotten identity does not offer them equal opportunities.

This New Zealand film deserves a large audience, which should, however, have a strong stomach. A brave drama film like this should not just be forgotten.

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