Four years ago Maori actress Rena Owen knocked out audiences with her turn as a survivor of vicious spousal abuse in "Once Were Warriors." In "When Love Comes ," she plays an even chancier role, a she who's really a he. But Owen's strong, understated performance and decidedly nonexploitative handling of sensitive material can't cover for fragmented narrative and serious focus problems.

Four years ago Maori actress Rena Owen knocked out audiences with her turn as a survivor of vicious spousal abuse in “Once Were Warriors.” In “When Love Comes ,” she plays an even chancier role, a she who’s really a he. But Owen’s strong, understated performance and decidedly nonexploitative handling of sensitive material can’t cover for fragmented narrative and serious focus problems. Curiosity factor, coupled with coy “Crying Game”–type promotion, will result in only so-so arthouse returns.

Owen plays Katie Keen, a transvestite performer who was “famous in the States for a whole week.” She has returned to Auckland to work on a one-woman show and reassess personal and professional priorities. She bunks with old friend Stephen (Simon Prast), who has his hands full with Mark (Dean O’Gorman), a young hustler and lyricist.

A pair of punk rockers (Sophia Hawthorne and Nancy Brunning) observe and comment wryly from the sidelines, like a garage-band chorus. Besides relating the saga of poor Katie, they hang with Mark and eventually hit on the idea of pairing with Katie.

Helmer Garth Maxwell displays obvious empathy for Katie, Stephen and the others, but this doesn’t translate into compelling drama or melodrama. All too often, characters trade tired recriminations or indulge in dewy monologues. This gets out of hand in the final scenes.

What makes pic unique is the casting of a female as a male. Gender-bender dramas, from “The Christine Jorgensen Story” to “M. Butterfly” and “The Crying Game,” have usually taken the opposite tack, with a male as a transsexual or transvestite. (Anne Heywood in the forgotten Brit meller “I Want What I Want” is a notable exception.)

Owen, no doubt determined not to turn Katie into a grotesque, relies on only a hint of extra makeup and almost no discernible masculine affectations. If anything, the transformation is too subtle: One loses sight of the man inside the woman, which robs the character and situation of any urgency.

Tech credits, including lenser Darryl Ward’s warm interiors and Grace Mok’s lived-in sets, further the primetime soap opera feel.

When Love Comes

New Zealand

Production

A Red Sky Entertainment release of a MF Films Ltd. production. Produced by Michele Fantl, Jonathan Dowling. Directed by Garth Maxwell. Screenplay, Maxwell, Rex Pelgrim, Peter Wells.

Crew

Camera (color), Darryl Ward; editor, Cushla Dillon; music, Chris Anderton; production designer, Grace Mok; art director, Anthony Sumich, Charles McGuiness; costumes, Kirsty Cameron; sound (Dolby), Dick Reade; makeup/hair, Rita Lynch; assistant director, Stewart Main. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 18, 1998. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Katie - Rena Owen
Mark - Dean O'Gorman
Stephen - Simon Prast
Sally - Sophia Hawthorne
Fig - Nancy Brunning
Eddie - Simon Westaway

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