WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: A friendship between two girls in 1950s Christchurch develops into a vivid shared fantasy, and an intense romance. When parental troubles threaten to separate the pair, they decide that drastic action must be taken.
Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey), also called Paul or Yvonne, is a taciturn child, relegated to sleeping in the shed while her mother and father, Honora and Herbert (Sarah Peirse and Simon O’Connor), run a hectic Christchurch lodging house. Paul’s life brightens up considerably when precocious Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) arrives at school, and despite their different backgrounds – Juliet’s parents Henry and Hilda (Clive Merrison and Diana Kent) are a college rector and marriage guidance counsellor, respectively – the pair strike up a close friendship, which blossoms into a fully-fledged fantasy called the ‘Fourth World’, whose ‘saints’ are the likes of Mario Lanza and James Mason.
When Juliet is struck down with TB, the girls develop their fantasy and write to each other as lovers Charles and Deborah, rulers of Borovnia and parents of troublesome child Diello. Juliet recovers, but the girls’ parents are increasingly troubled by the intimacy of their friendship. When the Hulmes’ own marriage goes beyond guidance, they plan to pack Juliet off to South Africa, panicking the girls into raising money to flee to Hollywood; Mr Hulme offers the distraught Pauline the chance to go with Juliet, but Honora refuses to give consent. Concluding that her mother is the only impediment to her happiness, Pauline plots to remove that impediment, by whatever means necessary.
Back in 1994, Peter Jackson was a cult director, known and loved by a select few for low-budget splatter movies Bad Taste and Brain Dead (I can’t comment on Meet the Feebles, but it sounds…odd). Which makes it all the more astonishing that Heavenly Creatures is as thoroughly and pleasingly accomplished a piece of storytelling as you could ever hope to see. Beginning at the bloody end, like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (I’m sure more apposite examples are available), the film tells its true story using Pauline’s own words and reveals a fascinating, if ultimately harrowing, incident with psychologically intriguing protagonists.
Crucially, Jackson and [screenwriting] partner Fran Walsh have nailed what’s truly important. Pauline and Juliet’s relationship is bursting with intensity, whether that’s expressed in sexual passion, wild fantasy, joy or anger; and it captures the overwhelming strength of emotions felt in adolescent love, never mind the h…h…homosexuality. It also delves into the psychology behind the crime, establishing a terrible tension as Paul becomes ever more resentful against her mother – she may hate her, but we see Honora as a confused woman just trying to keep her family together, entirely undeserving of her distressing fate.
Furthermore, the script lets us delve as deeply as we like into the facts behind the crime: was it a case, to paraphrase Larkin, of the mum and dads (ahem) messing up the kids? The Riepers smother Pauline, whilst the Hulmes are aloof or altogether absent. Or did the parents disapprove of the relationship, not because of the stigma of lesbianism, but because the girls dared to cross class boundaries? Did the girls’ childhood illnesses affect them in unfathomable ways? Or were they, as Paul suggests, simply mad?
With the story mostly focusing on two teenage girls, it was vital that the right actresses were chosen to play them. The good news is that the filmmakers couldn’t have wished for better than debutants Winslet and Lynskey. We all know what a good actress Winslet is, and she plays the precocious English girl beautifully, as well as becoming an intriguing fantasy figure (she sings Puccini nicely too); however, this is really Lynskey’s film. Her portrayal of Paul/Yvonne/Charles/Gina is a complicated mixture of childish innocence and experience (Pauline’s depucelated at a tender age), romance and mundanity, tender love and burning hatred, and she pulls it off brilliantly. Melanie’s child-like face conveys timeless emotions, and although her actions are ultimately horrific, Pauline is largely a sympathetic and darkly humorous figure. The adult actors are all well cast, too, Peirse bringing much pathos to her part and Merrison showing kindly, if distant, paternalism.
Heavenly Creatures also succeeds on a technical level. Jackson achieved fame through the incredible success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which set new standards for fantasy effects, be they prosthetic effects or CGI. However, what really impresses here is the real world. The recreation of 1950s Christchurch is impeccable, while the sunlit romance of the Hulmes’ house Ilam is a perfect base for the girls’ fantasies; there’s also a wonderful piece of trickery when the camera zooms around the inside of a sandcastle. If anything, these moments are more successful than the pure fantasy of the Fourth World or the clay people of Borovnia; in the former, the morphing gardens and CGI butterflies now look dated, while the latter’s immobile faces don’t quite have the desired effect, although we can clearly understand the director’s intentions (just as a comparison, Gilliam’s Brazil, while by no means perfect, pulled off its fantasy elements with more aplomb).
Since Return of the King, Jackson’s CV has been much discussed: though they all have supporters, the likes of King Kong, The Lovely Bones and The Hobbit have had their critics due to their extensive use of computer imagery and indulgent running times. Heavenly Creatures is a much more modest production than any of those above, but is arguably more successful – creatively, if not financially – than all of them; if you’ve never heard of it, or not seen it, I recommend that you seek it out as soon as you can.