Powerful but bleak views of domestic life

Families and households have been at the heart of many recent movies, but that doesn't mean filmmakers are generally upbeat about the subject. Two of this week's releases present gloomy views of domestic life in two different centuries.

The War Zone is newsworthy because it marks the directorial debut of Tim Roth, one of today's most respected screen actors. Like some other actors-turned-directors in recent years, including Sean Penn and Gary Oldman, he has launched the new phase of his career with a drama about family life at its most emotionally harrowing.

The main characters are a married couple, their two teenage children, and a newborn daughter. They've recently moved from London to northern England, and their adjustments to this change have been complicated by simmering hostilities between the generations. These escalate when 15-year-old Tom begins to suspect his 17-year-old sister is being sexually abused by their father. Tom tries to investigate the situation without causing additional pain, but tensions increase to a point where some kind of an explosion is inevitable.

The brilliant acting in "The War Zone" comes as little surprise, given Roth's expertise in this department. More unexpected is the cinematic skill he displays in telling this relentlessly bleak story without lapsing into either sensationalism or sentimentality.

This doesn't mean "The War Zone" is easy to watch - quite the opposite, since some scenes are unflinchingly graphic - but it does mean Roth has established himself as a very promising new director.

Miss Julie comes from Mike Figgis, whose filmmaking has ranged from mainstream movies like "Leaving Las Vegas" to experimental fare like "The Loss of Sexual Innocence," his most recent picture.

This season he's turned to August Strindberg's great melodrama - also memorably filmed by Alf Sjberg almost 50 years ago - about the psychologically complex love affair of an aristocratic young woman and an ambitious servant in 19th-century Sweden. Stressing fundamental human emotions over historical details and eye-catching effects, Figgis creates a visually claustrophobic yet steadily absorbing atmosphere in which the barely controlled feelings of his characters take on an almost palpable reality.

He deserves hearty praise, as do stars Saffron Burrows and Peter Mullan, for bringing Strindberg's study to convincing life 100 years after it was written.

*Both films have R ratings and contain adult material including explicit sex.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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