I worship the power of these lovely two
With that adoring love known to so few.
'Tis indeed a miracle, one must feel
That two such heavenly creatures are real....
Why are men such fools they will not realize
The wisdom that is hidden behind those strange eyes?
And these wonderful people are you and I.
--Pauline Yvonne Parker, 1953.
This dark gem of a film from 1994 made Peter Jackson's reputation and led to his receiving directorial duties for The Lord of the Rings. Based on one of the most notorious crimes in New Zealand's history, Heavenly Creatures holds close to the facts, making heavy use of diaries kept by one of the perpetrators. Jackson even shot in many of the original locations. It's a thriller, a true-crime story, a drama, a romance, and—- because it enters the overactive imaginations of the perpetrators-— a fantasy.
Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey give stunning debuts-- even more so when one considers their ages at the time (Lynksey was 17 and Winslet, 19). They're older than the girls they play, but still able to pass as early teens, and their youth contributes to the disturbing effect of the tale. Winslet makes Juliet so exuberant in her oddness that one becomes embarrassed for the character. Lynskey plays Pauline so perfectly as a proto-emo that her isolation becomes palpable. It would have been very easy to turn these characters, who are melodramatic even for teenagers, into figures of pure farce. Happily, this does not happen.
We see them interact, both in the gray world of the Christchurch school where they bond, outsiders from different worlds. Juliet comes from an upper-middle-class family where imagination is encouraged. She freely talks about her epic novel and makes grandiose plans unfettered by any sense of reality. Pauline, a working class girl, appears destined to oppose everyone around her. She doesn't get on especially well with her parents, her schoolmates, or her teachers. She rebels in various ways: refusing to smile for photos, for example, and accepting the sexual advances of an adult border.
Both girls have health problems, and like many people under pressure use fantasy as an escape. They gradually develop an imaginary world with a complex mythology which incorporates popular entertainers and gothic romance. Friendship should be a healthy thing, and fantasies can provide relief and guidance. In this case, both friendship and imagination become obsessions.
The fear that the girls may be involved sexually leads the families to separate them. At the same time, other problems grow in both homes.
Contrasting with the historical realism we have depictions of their fantasy world, with its violent lovers, crumbling castles, lush gardens, giant butterflies, and white unicorns. This imaginary "Fourth World" is cheesy, but in the way that a pair of teenage girls' imaginary creations might be. The film makes generally effective use of CGI and physical effects. Most remarkable are scenes where they interact with realized versions of their own clay sculptures.
Bridging the film's realistic and fantastic aspects are scenes, typically of authority figures, which have been played as parody. Some viewers may find these disconcerting, but they represent the world as the girls perceive it. They're also hugely entertaining. In the first part of the film, Pauline and Juliet earn a good deal of sympathy from the audience.
Then they develop a plan that will permit them to stay together forever.
Nothing can possibly excuse the crime, and I expect not even the killers, so many years later, could offer the definitive explanation for their actions. However, this film brings us entirely into their world through the memorable performances of the leads, the faithful recreation of the times, and the compelling depiction of the girls' fantasy lives, so that we feel we at least understand their motives.
I think most viewers will find themselves on the edge of their seats as the killing hour approaches.
The script makes excellent use of dark humour. Nearly everything the victim says in the final act drips with dramatic irony and sinister double meanings. We also feel the tension in the killers' minds. They experience reservations because the woman is being so nice and considerate of them. The touches of humour don't provide comic relief. Rather, they acknowledge our discomfort with the events and ultimately intensify the horror.
Perhaps the strangest twist occurred outside of the film. Despite the publicity surrounding the original Parker-Hulme Murder, celebrated mystery writer Anne Perry had kept secret from the general public the fact that she had been Juliet Hulme, one of the teenage killers. Publicity surrounding Heavenly Creatures led to the fact becoming known.
Heavenly Creatures will make many viewers uncomfortable.1 It also lacks the broad appeal of Jackson's Lord of the Rings or King Kong. It is, however, a film worth seeing, and possibly the director's finest.
Director: Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson. The script incorporates material written by Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme.
Melanie Lynskey as Pauline Yvonne Parker/Rieper
Kate Winslet as Juliet Hulme
Sarah Peirse as Honorah Parker Rieper
Diana Kent as Hilda Hulme
Clive Merrison as Dr. Henry Hulme
Simon O’Connor as Herbert Rieper
Peter Elliott as Bill Perry
Jed Brophy as John
Stephen Reilly as Mario Lanza
Jean Guérin as Orson Welles
1.That discomfort touches governments and censor boards. In some regions, two suggestive (though not explicit) scenes involving the young actresses have been censored.