The yearning and frustrations of two teenage girls in 1950s New Zealand leads to tragedy, in this wildly expressive film based on an actual murder case.
Before New Zealand director Peter Jackson became world famous for his Lord of the Rings trilogy, he had a cult following for directing a few horror and zombie films that featured wild special effects and stop-motion animation. Then in 1994, at age 32, Jackson showed that he could handle a movie with wider significance and appeal. That film was Heavenly Creatures, a story based on a notorious murder case from the early 1950s in Christchurch, New Zealand. As was to be the case in all his future work, Jackson wrote the screenplay with his wife, Fran Walsh. This was the film that fascinated me when I first saw it in 1995, and then quickly went to see it again.
After the picture establishes its time and place with part of an actual 1954 newsreel about Christchurch, we meet Pauline Rieper, a lonely and painfully self-conscious teenage girl played by 16-year-old newcomer Melanie Lynskey. Her parents and siblings don’t understand why Pauline is always so angry and withdrawn, although we in the audience can sense that the difficult and confusing effects of puberty clearly play a role. Ignored by her classmates at a girls’ school, and disliked by teachers, Pauline is bewildered about her life, an experience well conveyed through Jackson’s bold camera effects and frenetic editing. Then, an English girl arrives at the school, Juliet Hulme, played by the 17-year-old Kate Winslet. Vivacious, imaginative, and boldly rebellious, Juliet immediately captivates Pauline, and reaches out to her in friendship, which the shy girl responds to with all the repressed passion of her soul. Winslet had previously appeared on English TV, but this was her first role in a movie. She and Lynskey give powerful, revelatory performances.
The bond between Pauline and Juliet quickly becomes rather intense. Pauline introduces her friend to the music of her idol, the tenor Mario Lanza. Their enmeshment expresses itself in imaginative play-acting: they pretend to be fantasy heroines in a mythical kingdom, giving themselves different names and acting out little stories. Here Jackson introduces his animation techniques—large “claymation” type figures dancing, singing, and embracing the girls in the courtyard of a medieval castle. The girls’ fantasies not only celebrate their bond, but express anger and hostility towards authority figures who try to discipline them.
The trouble starts when Juliet’s father feels disturbed by how involved the two girls are in each other. He thinks it’s unhealthy, and he tells Pauline’s mother that. Both sets of parents try to discourage the friendship in various ways, but of course this only makes the attachment stronger and more determined. When the Hulmes decide to move back to England, Juliet and Pauline think they’re being persecuted. Faced with the unthinkable prospect of separation, their fragile minds go over the edge.
Heavenly Creatures is a fever dream of a movie. Sometimes it seems like you can barely catch your breath with Jackson’s relentless, flamboyant style, funny at first but ultimately tragic. No film that I’ve seen has captured the insanity of adolescence, the inability to see a future in the pressure of today, than this film has. Heavenly Creatures’ remarkable compassion for its misguided characters brings us to painful and unforgettable awareness.