HEAVENLY CREATURES (director/writer: Peter Jackson; screenwriter: Frances Walsh; cinematographer: Alun Bollinger; editor: Jamie Selkirk; cast: Melanie Lynskey (Pauline Parker), Kate Winslet (Juliet Hulme), Sarah Peirse (Honora Parker), Diana Kent (Hilda Hulme), Clive Merrison (Henry Hulme), Simon O’Connor (Herbert Rieper), Jed Brophy (John/Nicholas), Kirsty Ferry (Wendy Rieper), Gilbert Goldie (Doctor Bennett), Peter Elliott (Bill Perry); Runtime: 99; WingNut/Fontana; 1994-New Zealand)
“The acting by Winslet and Lynskey is superb.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A real-life chilling tale of matricide is put forth in a tale about an obsessive relationship between two very imaginative adolescent girls. It’s set in Christchurch, New Zealand, between 1953 and 1954. The 33-year-old director, New Zealander Peter Jackson (Braindead/Dead Alive), previously known for making gore films, has come up with a stunning melodramatic story, spoiled only by the director’s excessive camera shots of the girls’ fantasy world, which was more arty than enlightening.
The film opens with two girls running and screaming while covered in blood, seeking help for the mother of one of them. It then retraces the events that led up to that incident as the story pulls back to the schoolroom in Christchurch and we see one of the girls who was covered in blood, Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), as she sits in class. Soon, the headmistress enters and introduces a new classmate, Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), who was the other girl. In the French class Juliet boldly corrects the teacher’s grammatical mistake, to the dismay of the teacher. In another class she is paired off with Pauline, and so begins the intensive friendship for these opposites. Pauline is shy but bright, heavy-set and plain looking, from a working-class and uneducated family, with a scarred leg from a few operations due to weak bone structure; while, Juliet is pretty, slender, worldly, aggressively sure of herself, from an upper-class, well-educated family, but is suffering from tuberculosis. Both girls have a vivid imagination, share a love for the great tenor Mario Lanza, don’t mingle with the other school girls, and find security only when together.
They grow to depend on each other, each hurt by things that happen in their dysfunctional family life. Juliet’s parents sometimes abandon her while they travel; while Pauline is embarrassed by the lack of culture in her house and that her mother (Sarah Peirse) is always nagging her.
Pauline starts a diary and begins the New Year of 1953 by saying she will try to be kinder to others. In 1954, after a great many changes take place in her life, she writes in the diary: Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you might be dead. It is this diary that the police find, with all her inner thoughts in it, that helps convict the girls of their crime.
The girls spend a lot of time together living in their fantasy world, which is a royal dynasty they created composed of plastic figurines. They base their lives on the characters they have created, imagining all sorts of conspiracies and upheavals. It is their escape from the dullness of their conservative environment as they convince themselves of their need to be writers, which they think only they can understand why they so desperately want to be writers at this young age. They envision bliss in the “4th World,” a “heaven without Christians,” where Mario Lanza’s songs can always be heard.
Pauline’s parents don’t know what to make of their daughter’s behavior. One incident disturbs them greatly when her father, Herbert Rieper (Simon), catches her in bed with their boarder (Jed). Other than that, they are mainly concerned that she do well in school. But Henry Hulme (Clive Merrison), Juliet’s father, visits Pauline’s parents and tells them he is disturbed that the girls have developed an unhealthy relationship, hinting at lesbianism. The girls do have one such episode plus there is a scene of them innocently kissing each other, but it is left unclear as to what their natural sexual inclination in a relationship is. Dr. Hulme recommends a child psychiatrist for Pauline, but Juliet’s mother (Diana Kent) has a more liberal attitude toward her daughter; and, it soon becomes apparent why. She is having an affair with a Mr. Perry (Elliott), which will cause a divorce and lead to Juliet’s downfall.
When Juliet is isolated in the hospital for her tuberculosis for several months, the girls become consumate letter writers and seal a bond that they will be together forever. They come up with the idea that when they write each other they will address themselves by the names of their fictitious characters they created. This increases their mutual dependence.
What brings the tragic events about, is when Juliet’s parents selfishly insist that she live with a relative in South Africa after the divorce.
Not being able to accept this separation, the girls come up with a most irrational plan as they blame Pauline’s mother for their problems (I guess because of her visit to the shrink and the hatred Pauline has for her). They decide to kill her by hitting her over the head with a sock that has a rock in it and making it appear like it was an accident from a fall.
By tossing fantasy and reality together in such a haphazard manner, the film holds the viewer’s interest throughout. It feels like we can’t quite grasp what is on the girls’ minds, even if we hear Pauline’s troubling voiceover explaining her diary notations. Even if, we are caught by the romantic mood swings of the girls and their imaginative games they play…the girls have gone too far into their own world to be understood. In one early scene they romp together in the woods dressed only in their underwear, and seem carefree and happy. But when the tragedy hits, we can only ascertain that the girls have lost sense of reality due to their extreme reactions to the news of their impending separation.
The acting by Winslet and Lynskey is superb. Their secretive bond of ‘them against the world,’ is convincingly carried out by them committing a murder. The film is also visually stunning. But the moral of the story is never made clear.
In the epilogue we are told that the girls received a maximum of five years in the juvenile detention system and that when they were released, a condition of their parole was that they would never see each other again. Because of the renewed interest in the girls when the movie came out reporters discovered that Juliet was living in Scotland and prospering by writing mystery novels set in Victorian days, under the pseudonym Anne Perry. The reporters could not locate the whereabouts of Pauline, though they know she is living somewhere in New Zealand.
REVIEWED ON 4/8/2000 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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