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Monday, 29 December 2014

REVIEW - HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994)

Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Starring: Kate Winslet, Melanie Lynskey, Sarah Peirse
Music by: Peter Dasent
Release date: 14 October, 1994 (New Zealand)

I don't even know where to begin with Heavenly Creatures. I'd strongly argue that the quote from Time Magazine on the left is not the right word to describe this movie. There are many that could be adequate: masterful, beautiful, gripping... but "unsettling" is probably near the top.

Directed by future Middle-Earth master Peter Jackson, this is a far cry from the world of orcs and elves. Heavenly Creatures is a dramatisation of a true story that occurred in the New Zealand city of Christchurch on the 22nd of June, 1954.

Said story began when fifteen-year-old Juliet Hulme (portrayed by Kate Winslet here) began attending an all-girls school, and met sixteen-year-old Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey). They quickly became intoxicated by each other, united by a love of opera singer Mario Lanza, a shared sense of being cut off from the rest of the world, and a fascination for the macabre.

Eventually they were inseparable, but their happiness was short-lived. Juliet developed tuberculosis, and they desperately tried to keep in contact with each other, writing long, detailed letters to one another detailing the events of their shared fantasy worlds and how they longed to see each other again. Fears of homosexuality and insanity rose from those around them, and certain people attempted to drive them apart. One of these people was Pauline's mother, Honorah Rieper (Sarah Peirse). A main obstacle in Pauline's mind, she devised a plan with Juliet, and together they led Rieper deep into a wooded area of a park, and bludgeoned her to death with a brick.

In telling this story, Heavenly Creatures smartly utilises a circular narrative, beginning with the two girls running away from the murder scene, shrieking and blood-drenched. This harrowing sequence firmly sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Throughout its entire runtime there is a lingering sense of dread. The girls often dance around, become immersed in their fantasy worlds and laugh and giggle while having fun, but you know it isn't going to end well. As they descend more and more into The Fourth World - their imaginary safe haven which they believe they'll be transported to when they die - you can slowly feel these girls slipping away from reality. It makes for an extremely unusual, almost psychedelic experience, and makes the disastrous outcome of their relationship all the more devastating.

New Zealand director Peter Jackson went on to direct movies like King Kong (2005), The Lovely Bones (2009), and, as you probably know, juggernauts such as the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. His work on Heavenly Creatures is very original, particularly in its visuals. The beginnings of his penchant for creating fantastical, yet realistic worlds can be seen here in the The Fourth World, with its walking talking clay warriors and Mario Lanzas. And when Juliet and Pauline are finished holding each other's hands and looking eerily like something out of The Shining, the terrible deed is shown in full during the movie's final moments, and it's distressing. It's not a standard Hollywood-style death scene either. It's as authentic as it can possibly be, there's no score (although what score we do have here is superb), and Reiper cries out like an animal. It's all expertly filmed, and the brief final shot of the movie is the stuff of nightmares.


Yet, for all its morbidity, there's a beauty to Heavenly Creatures. In a somewhat twisted sort of way, you sympathise with these girls, and their story is admittedly pretty incredible. Sure, some might understandably see them as complete nutters, and their punishment is inevitable and completely justified, but they're living in a world where everything and everyone, it seems, is against them. They're utterly helpless, and you understand their relationship even if you're still wary of it. The outcome is more tragic than it is warranted - although that's not to say it isn't the latter - and Juliet, who's usually the more headstrong of the duo, actually starts to go all Lady Macbeth before the unspeakable deed is done. She tries to justify her actions by telling herself that Pauline's mother probably knows what's coming and wouldn't hold a grudge, and she constantly fiddles with her hands as if she's trying to wash off imaginary blood. The intense connection between the two girls is also sold effortlessly by Melanie Lynskey (who has the ability to glare at someone like some kind of devil spawn) and Kate Winslet in her debut role. Both are extremely talented actresses, and it's peculiar that Lynskey has somewhat flown under the radar over the years.

Pauline and Juliet in Heavenly Creatures are largely believed to be lesbians, by both the characters and often the audience. But it's likely that the suggestions alluding to that idea are red herrings or are meant to be left up to interpretation, as the girls themselves never actually mention it, and the film deliberately pokes fun at the idea that homosexuality was considered a mental illness at the time, particularly through a close-up shot of a doctor's mouth saying the dreaded word (the real-life Juliet also claims that while the relationship was obsessive, it was never romantic). It focuses much more on the dynamic of their friendship and how unusual and complex they are than it does an explicitly romantic relationship. There could have been something more going on there, but who knows? Jackson tastefully walks a tightrope between the two ideas, and it makes for an even richer product.



Heavenly Creatures is pretty extraordinary. With first-rate performances, heavy emotional weight and energetic direction, it's disturbing yet captivating, and one of Jackson's best, if not his best. Fun fact: the real Juliet now lives under the name Anne Perry, and has written almost one-hundred crime novels. Funny how things work out...