Friday August 20, 1999
Garth Maxwell's "When Love Comes" is an edgy, multi-character love story whose central figure, a fading pop singer, is played by the compelling New Zealand actress Rena Owen, who won international acclaim as the weary, abused wife in Lee Tamahori's 1994 "Once Were Warriors."
Owen's Katie Keen is a country girl whose natural singing talent took her to America in the late '70s, where she scored a No. 1 hit. She's been living off that renown ever since with increasingly diminishing returns. Reduced to playing rowdy clubs whose youthful audiences don't know who she is and couldn't care less, Katie can no longer hold an audience's attention.
Realizing that she's hit rock bottom, she sees her only salvation in returning home to her native New Zealand in an attempt to rebuild her life and hopefully reinvent herself as a performer. Her parents have died, and she looks for refuge in her best friend, Stephen (Simon Prast), who is a waiter at a posh Auckland restaurant. Somewhere in her 40s, Katie combines majestic poise, a sometimes ravaged beauty with an earthy, unpretentious personality and an uncommon capacity for self-reflection. Beneath her star's poise and glamour look, however, lies a highly vulnerable woman.
Katie and Stephen have one of those deep bonds that transcends time and distance. They are completely open with each other, and if either should upset the other, they get over it with a forthrightness and forgiveness that's enviable. Katie is thinking of making a comeback via a one-woman show, and her manager-lover, Eddie (Simon Westaway), back in the U.S. even has a taping set that could lead to a TV variety series. Eddie sees in the eloquence and detachment with which she is able to speak of herself and her career the perfect material with which to frame a revival performance.
In the meantime, Stephen himself is at a crossroads. Whether through inheritance or investments, Stephen has acquired a comfortable, tasteful lifestyle. He has fallen in love with a classic golden boy, Mark (Dean O'Gorman), who was a male hustler when they first met. Mark has moved on to become a gifted pop lyricist, and his pals, Fig (Nancy Brunning), a drummer, and her lover and performing partner, Sally (Sophia Hawthorne), a singer, are trying to break through as rock performers. They have enough drive, energy and talent to have a chance of making it.
Fig and Sally, in their youth, are blessedly uncomplicated and resilient, but Mark is steeped in confusion and uncertainty about every aspect of his life. He seems to care for Stephen but isn't ready to settle down. Having moved beyond a commercial relationship with the older man, he's unsure of whether he's up to the responsibilities of being Stephen's lover.
"When Love Comes" culminates with this group, later joined by Eddie, taking off to the beautiful seaside region where Katie grew up.
All of this is, thankfully, not as neat and tidy as it sounds. Maxwell, who has directed episodes on both the "Xena" and "Hercules" series and has one well-received feature, "Jack Be Nimble," behind him, plays against the send-'em-home-happy trajectory of his story with an aura of tentativeness. Stephen and Mark may well reach a moment of rapport, but there's no telling whether they will be able to build a relationship upon it, let alone one that will endure, and while Katie and Eddie may be heading off into the sunset together, there's no certainty that Katie will be able to revive her career and take it in a new direction. Only Fig and Sally, without having any conflict in the first place, continuing bobbing along a bit wiser from all the emotional fireworks around them.
Although "When Love Comes" is traditional in structure, it is nonetheless risky; it allows its characters plenty of time and space to be insufferable, as most people can be in real life. Yet Maxwell has the kind of compassion and detachment to keep his picture from becoming insufferable.
Beyond that, Maxwell displays a talent for dialogue and direction--and also for apt song lyrics--to make these people engaging and worth caring about. Owen and Prast, both of whom are well-seasoned actors, possess a wit and depth that lend gravity to a film intent on capturing the skittishness and tentativeness that so often accompany matters of the heart.
When Love Comes, 1999. Unrated. A Jour de Fe^te Films release produced by Michele Fantl and Jonathan Dowling for MF Films in association with the New Zealand Film Commission. Director Garth Maxwell. Screenplay Maxwell, with Rex Pilgrim and Peter Wells. Cinematographer John Newby. Editor Cushla Dillon. Music Chris Anderton. Costumes Kirsty Cameron. Art directors Anthony Sumich, Charles McGuiness. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Rena Owen as Katie. Dean O'Gorman as Mark. Simon Prast as Stephen. Nancy Brunning as Fig. Sophia Hawthorne as Sally. Simon Westaway as Eddie.