Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors opens with a picture that's almost too perfect — a sparkling lake and rolling hills unfold beneath the spotless New Zealand sky, all bounded by the mountainous horizon. Then the camera slowly retreats, revealing the truth behind this portrait of nature's majesty: It's a billboard for the electric company, high above the barbed wire and broken glass that characterize the modern Maori homeland, where barroom brawls and domestic violence are all that's left of a once-proud fighting spirit.
The point is obvious yet succinct: These people once were warriors, but their legacy has been buried by the concrete jungle left behind by the march of progress. While the romanticized past still exists in commercials and children's stories, it bears little resemblance to their unforgiving reality defined by the dole and drink.
Director Ken Loach surveys a similar urban landscape in his new film, Ladybird, Ladybird. Named after the brightly colored beetle who discovered that her “house was on fire, [her] children all gone,” this grim fairy tale takes its inspiration from the real-life story of a London woman's struggle to care for her kids. But unlike the nursery rhyme's wayward mother, Maggie Conlon (Crissy Rock) gets caught up in the infernal machinery of the English welfare system.
As she tells sad-eyed Jorge (Vladimir Vega) when they strike up a conversation at the local pub, Maggie has had “four different kids by four different dads,” beastly men the lot of them, quicker with their fists than with any sort of child support, much less a kind word. But Maggie can't seem to help herself when it comes to the fellas: “I smell trouble,” she confesses, “and go to bed with it.”
Maggie, however, is a fighter. Her tumbles nearly always leave her battered and with another mouth to feed, but she feels the fruits of these unions — her babies — make life worth living. So she digs in and waits, waits until the abuser inevitably abandons her, then packs up her kids and moves on. Now, inconceivably, the social-services bureaucrats have taken Maggie's precious children away.
And so Ladybird begins its relentless march through the paces of Maggie's life. Jorge, a political refugee from Paraguay and a sensitive musician, becomes her lover, the father of additional children and a full partner in her uphill battle with the welfare state. He also becomes her emotional punching bag and the friend whose surpassing patience finally defuses her deep-seated anger, distilled from years of abuse that began in Maggie's childhood.
Like Once Were Warriors, Loach's film doesn't shrink from domestic violence. In a particularly brutal scene, Simon (Ray Winstone), Jorge's ill-tempered predecessor, explodes when Maggie keeps him waiting. Rising ominously from his seat as she enters her flat, Simon tersely points at the clock: “Two hours, you fucking Irish slag, two hours,” he complains, then he beats her bloody with his beer can.
Ladybird also doesn't flinch in portraying the psychological trauma inflicted on Maggie. When uniformed authorities arrive to take away her infant child, Maggie unleashes a mythic fury; the consuming anguish in this sequence illustrates why newcomer Rock garnered a best-actress award at the 1994 Berlin Film Festival.
As in much of Loach's work, Ladybird has a political ax to grind, although this film's quasi-documentary tone keeps it at a simmer rather than a boil. Instead of British machination in Northern Ireland (Hidden Agenda) or Thatcherite labor policy (Riff-Raff), Ladybird targets the unsympathetic social-welfare hierarchy (and to a lesser extent the immigration office that harasses poor “Horgay”). An unmarried woman without education or job skills, born into a miserable cycle of poverty and abuse, Maggie has little chance in the face of institutions pre-disposed to discount her fitness as a parent. Indeed, they seem immune to arguments that this time will be different: “Ms. Conlon seems likely to continue her pattern of abusive relationships,” the court determines at a custody hearing. “Children need more than love — they need support and they need security.”
Eager to flesh out Maggie's unjust treatment by the impassive bureaucracy, Loach never steps back to consider the merits of that ruling. To his credit, he also never pretends that his heroes are free of tragic flaws. Jorge abandoned his family in Paraguay because of his “political problems.” And Maggie is nothing if not a woman who loves too much. “I loved him, and I couldn't help it,” Maggie admits about Simon. “So what did that make me?” Did it make her a victim of circumstance, a prisoner of both upbringing and class prejudice? Certainly. Did it make her a responsible mother? Quite arguably not.
Note the fateful evening that sparks the seizure of her children. Maggie has gone off to work as a nightclub singer; because the women's shelter is overrun with rambunctious rugrats, she locks her youngsters in their room. Then Maggie's cover of “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” is interrupted by an urgent phone call. House all afire? Can it be so? Poor ladybird doesn't know which way to go. Cut to her headlong dash to the hospital, where the badly burned babies whimper in pain.
“You have to love something or you are empty,” Jorge assures his frightened ladybird. He also recites a poem about candles that die but can still be used to light another. Ladybird's end titles explain that the couple went on to have three more children. Maggie's indefatigable appetite for offspring, whatever the consequences, is so tragic as to almost become comic. I couldn't help thinking of the perpetually pregnant materfamilias in Monty Python's the Meaning of Life, whose faith in the rhythm method and other papal bull remained unshakable despite dropping babies while doing the dishes.
Parenthood may mean limitless opportunity inside the white-picket fences of middle-class suburbia, but the apron strings of less-fortunate mothers can catch an innocent child by the throat. It's a lesson that Beth (Rena Owen), the hopeless but not helpless mother in Once Were Warriors, learns the hard way. “You're not going to hurt my babies anymore,” she finally tells the ferociously unfit father of her children. “Not while I can do something about it.” Maybe that's a message you can only hear outside the nursery.
Ladybird, Ladybird opens Fri, March 31, at the Opera Plaza in