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Though it boasts the racy tag line “Two men loved her…she chose them both,” Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s December Bride is a somber, unassuming tale set among pious, turn-of-the-century Irish Presbyterians.
Only recently released in the United States, the superbly acted and beautifully photographed Bride won a wheelbarrow full of prestigious awards at the time of its 1990 European premiere. (In the intervening years, The Piano made foreign films pairing majestic coastlines and willful 19th-century women commercially viable.) The film is based on the 1951 novel by Sam Hanna Bell, and tells the story of a woman whose fierce independence is circumscribed by the grim realities of time, place, and opportunity.
In a remote coastal community, Sarah (Saskia Reeves) and her mother are engaged as servants to widowed patriarch Andrew Echlin (Geoffrey Golden) and his grown sons Hamilton (Donal McCann) and Frank (Ciaran Hinds). (The men sit wordlessly in a stark kitchen, one brother’s dilatory application of honey to a biscuit the only hint at the sensual.) Returning by boat from a visit to family, the Echlins and Sarah are caught in a violent gale, and Andrew drowns. The tragedy triggers a crisis of faith in its survivors: Sarah, Hamilton, and Frank soon stop going to church altogether. Sarah’s devout mother leaves the household in protest, and it’s not long before irreligiosity isn’t the only unconventional aspect of the trio’s life together.
Bedding Frank (he plays a mean jew’s harp) and Hamilton (he carves her a butter mold) in rapid succession, Sarah leaves them to hash out the details on their own. When she duly becomes pregnant, neither she nor they have any way of knowing the father’s identity. Worse, Sarah refuses to wed either brother (it’s probably not a coincidence that her Old Testament name suggests confusion on the subject of matrimony). Continuing to live contentedly with this strange arrangement, the little group incens es the minister and effectively isolates itself from the community.
Indeed, the sense of confinement that permeates Bride is palpable: The movie creates an atmosphere of intense claustrophobia even though most of it takes place outdoors. The area’s bleak landscape dominates the film, its presence as strongly felt as that of the actors. Bride‘s themes must necessarily be conveyed visually, as none of its characters are much for talking. Only well into the film do they even begin to converse (and this, ironically, when old Andrew calls Sarah, “a woman of few words”). Nonetheless, there is plenty to see: The separate spheres of men and women, for example, are underscored by a scene in which Andrew’s casket is borne away to the graveyard by the men of the community and the women are left behind to watch and wait.
Though its central theme is nonconformity—and Sarah refuses to conform in virtually the only way available to her—the film also takes a swipe at religious hypocrisy. In a rare communicative moment, Sarah chides the minister for insisting that the parishioners’ lives look “smooth to the eye, like lazy work” regardless of what’s going on beneath the surface. And in true Lawrencian fashion, Bride equates ease with nature and strength of character. The minister rather pointedly plants his effete, flowery garden in well-planned rows, while the Echlins yank big old potatoes right out of the ground and eat them. They also have a way with sheep, heaving them across their shoulders or into their laps as the situation warrants. The filmmakers make it clear where their sympathies lie: When the minister clumsily balances a kid on his knees (a sure bet for the lamb of God in this highly symbolic drama), it promptly squirts sheep poop all over his neatly pressed trousers.
The highest-grossing feature in New Zealand history, Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors was photographed by Stuart Dryburgh, director of photography for The Piano. But the contemporary New Zealand depicted here could hardly be less similar.
Set in a decaying, graffiti-scrawled urbanscape and punctuated by graphic violence, Warriors is the story of a modern Maori family that is terrorized by the drunken brutality of its patriarch. Adapted for the screen by New Zealand playwright Riwia Brown, the film is based on Alan Duff’s novel of the same name, hotly controversial in New Zealand for its unsparing take on the degeneration of Maori pride. In Warriors‘ press kit, its director says that he put “more hope, heart, and positive things” in the film than there were in the book. These, however, are not immediately apparent.
Having been married to Jake (Temuera Morrison) for 18 years, it’s a wonder Beth (Rena Owen) still has all her teeth. She’s a tough lady—this mother of five has a tattoo on her breast and can open beer bottles with a spatula—but her husband is a towering brute who beats her senseless at regular intervals. Beth’s two older sons have already begun to emulate their father’s violent behavior, one running into trouble with the law and the other joining a fierce street gang whose Rottweiler-accessorized members look like extras from The Road Warrior. Beth’s middle child, sensitive, short-story-writing Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), is the anomaly in her family. Grace’s mother assures her that men like Dad are simply “a woman’s lot”: Warriors is a bloody chronicle of what it takes to make her change her mind.
The film succeeds in capturing the horror of domestic violence—sometimes too literally, as when late-show-style music accompanies Jake’s escalating rage. Warriors‘ scenes of graphic, stomach-churning violence come early and often: Beth awakens on blood-caked sheets after a protracted beating, her son undergoes a savage gangland initiation, her teen-age daughter is raped in her own bed by one of Jake’s drinking buddies. The film’s tepid message about the healing power of Maori pride doesn’t come close to competing with all this. When Beth’s eleventh-hour epiphany comes, the effect is similar to that of a family-first infomercial sponsored by the Latter-day Saints.