HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994) has several interesting things going for it. It's based on a real life murder in New Zealand in the 1950's. It was actress Kate Winslet's first feature film. It was directed by Peter Jackson, pre-THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. And it hints at director Jackson's future themes as HEAVENLY CREATURES is a dark subject that he chooses to film with fantasy overtones similar to his more recent THE LOVELY BONES (2009). In fact, CREATURES had some surprisingly creative fantasy sequences that I never expected to see in a film about matricide.
I first fell in love with Kate Winslet during TITANIC in 1997 (no she is not aware of my love for her). After TITANIC I wanted to see everything that she had done even if it meant watching her in obscure films like HIDEOUS KINKY (1998). HEAVENLY CREATURES was the one film in her filmography I kept hearing about that I had never managed to rent or see until now. But it is very evident from her performance in CREATURES that she was destined to be a star.
HEAVENLY CREATURES is based on an actual murder case in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1954. Adapted by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, the film explores the obsessive friendship between two polar opposite school girls - introverted Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) and extroverted Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) from 1952 to 1954. Juliet is worldly, sophisticated, and opinionated. She's just moved to New Zealand from England. Pauline is frumpy, reserved, and not nearly as pretty as Juliet. Having both suffered from childhood illnesses, Pauline and Juliet are held out of gym class together at Christchurch Girls High School, which kick starts their relationship.
Pauline and Juliet have vivid imaginations. Imaginary worlds like Borovnia and the 4th World, matinee idols and opera stars (like Mario Lanza) that interact with them, unicorns and clay warriors that come to life, the two girls hide in these fantasies to avoid their less than perfect personal lives. For Juliet, she harbors resentment toward her parents Hilda (Diana Kent) and Dr. Henry Hulme (Clive Merrisen) who seem to leave her every time she becomes ill. Pauline has a brief sexual encounter with one of her parents boarders named John (Jed Brophy) who's sweet on her. The experience proves to be awkward and not emotionally satisfying. Pauline's father Herbert Rieper (Simon O'Connor) kicks John out when he discovers their tryst . Pauline's relationship with her mother Honora (Sarah Peirse) begins to go downhill.
As Pauline and Juliet spend more time together, the girls relationship begins to create tension for both sets of parents. Pauline becomes more withdrawn and fights frequently with her mother. Dr. Hulme visits Pauline's parents and confesses he fears the girls' "friendship is unhealthy." In other words, he thinks Pauline is a lesbian.
The film does explore Pauline and Juliet's sexual awakening as young women. Pauline and Juliet take baths together, sleep in the same bed, eventually make love. It's all part of their obsessive descent toward a most reprehensible act. The girls begin to find both sets of parents oppressive and suffocating, interfering with their personal and fantasy lives. When Juliet's parents announce they're divorcing and sending Juliet to live with an aunt in South Africa, Pauline is adamant that she'll accompany Juliet but Honora blocks that idea. Pauline devises a plan to murder her mother Honora and convinces Juliet to assist her, believing that with her mother out of the way, the two girls can be together forever, maybe even run away to Hollywood or Juliet's parents will adopt her. HEAVENLY CREATURES ends with Pauline and Juliet carrying out their heinous plan.
HEAVENLY CREATURES most closely resembles Peter Jackson's most recent film THE LOVELY BONES, another dark film sprinkled with fantasy elements based on the Alice Sebold novel. In THE LOVELY BONES, a young girl on the threshold of womanhood is murdered by a pedophile neighbor. The film follows her in heaven as she watches her family try to catch her murderer. The murder of a child is a horrific subject but Jackson offsets it with images of heaven as a palette of bright colors. He never shows the girl's dead body to the audience, just her pretty self in the afterlife.
Pauline and Juliet are anything but the HEAVENLY CREATURES they believe they are. Jackson opens the film up with a clever 1950's New Zealand archival news reel, the citizens of Christchurch seemingly all prim and proper and clean-cut before cutting to Pauline and Juliet racing up a path, screaming, covered in blood. Throughout the film, there permeates a sense of dread, even in some of the light-hearted fantasy sequences. At one point, Pauline imagines her imaginary clay Borovnian warrior Charles (Ben Fransham) killing her psychiatrist. Pauline is clearly having a tougher time dealing with reality and Jackson occasionally films her close up with a crazed stare, her brown furrowed, that hearkens to actor Vincent D'Onofrio's insane Private Pyle in FULL METAL JACKET (1987).
CREATURES goes so far as to use the journal voice-overs in the film from the real life Pauline Parker's journal entries. The filmmakers shot at many of the same locations where the girls frequented including the murder scene. The most unsettling part of the film for me was the closing titles revealing the fate of the two young murderers. For as horrific crime as they committed, it seemed to me they got off easy. The fact that they were not adults kept them from the death penalty and both were free within a decade.
Just as in THE LOVELY BONES, Director Jackson shows off his creative talents in the fantasy scenes for HEAVENLY CREATURES. CREATURES obviously didn't have the big budget that BONES had yet Jackson has some clever sequences with a King Arthurian like sand castle, life-size clay warriors (that sort of resemble the Chinese terra cotta warriors), and a black and white Orson Welles (Jean Guerin) from THE THIRD MAN (1949) that chases Pauline and Juliet after they watch the film at a theater. Jackson's use of fantasy sequences helps to lessen the depressing subject of two girls murdering a mother as well as show Pauline and Juliet's state of mind.
Kate Winslet's career skyrocketed since her role as Juliet in HEAVENLY CREATURES including 4 Academy Award nominations in her still young career but the lesser known Melanie Lynskey who plays Pauline has had a decent career including 57 episodes on the TV hit TWO AND A HALF MEN as well as roles in Jason Reitman's UP IN THE AIR (2009) and Steven Soderbergh's THE INFORMANT! (2009) . But HEAVENLY CREATURES ultimately is a harbinger of what a great talent director Peter Jackson would become. He shows command of his craft as almost every scene in HEAVENLY CREATURES has something special about it whether it be the music, the camera movement, the editing and pace, the fantasy scenes, or the casting and acting. Jackson would show his virtuosity with THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. Besides Spielberg in his younger days, Jackson may be one of the most talented directors today.
HEAVENLY CREATURES is a must for Peter Jackson fans and Kate Winslet fans. It's a treasure to catch a director or actress early in their careers work on something as intelligent and well made as CREATURES.