Heavenly Creatures – Film Review

Watched an early Peter Jackson film, which was also a big-screen debut for very young Kate Winslet. Heavenly Creatures is based on the true story of two teenage girls in 1950s New Zealand who commit a terrible crime. You see the immediate bloody aftermath in the opening scene, so the movie then becomes a relentless, suspenseful countdown to the horrible act, while you hope against all odds that it doesn’t come to pass.

Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) is awkward adolescence personified, a loner with dark frizzy hair and a permanent scowl on her face. She drifts through her classes oblivious to everyone else, until one day a new student is introduced by the teacher – a British girl named Juliet (Kate Winslet). At first, Juliet seems like a perfect English rose, if a bit on a precocious side, but soon reveals a somewhat manic edge that hints on emotional instability (Winslet plays her just on the right side of annoyingly over-the-top). The two girls share a vivid imagination and fondness for the macabre, and quickly become best friends. Soon they disappear into the world of their own making, an imaginary kingdom called Borovnia, which is a setting for their adventure stories they write together.

Eventually their parents become disturbed by the intense closeness of the girls, with Juliet’s father suspecting that which in the 1950s cannot be named, a homosexual relationship. While we do see the girls cuddle and kiss, the film leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether or not there’s any real sexual element involved. Partly because of this discomfort and partly because of Juliet’s parents’ circumstances, it is decided that the girls must be separated; terrified at the thought of losing each other and their magical world, Juliet and Pauline plan and carry out a murder. At the start of the film, you’re informed that the narration uses Pauline’s real diary entries, and her matter-of-fact writing about the crime is absolutely chilling.

Apart from being a fascinating and disturbing story, it was interesting to watch this earlier film because, despite its smaller scale, you can clearly see a filmmaker who would go on to make The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson has an unmistakable affinity for fantasy, making the imaginary Borovnia scenes as real to the viewer as they are to the girls. There is also a lot of camera zooming into close-ups on people’s faces, which gives this small story a more heightened feeling. I was amused to see that Jackson’s cameos in his own movies didn’t start with Middle-earth – here he pops up as a homeless man Juliet and Pauline encounter outside the cinema. Unlike some of his later bloated projects, nothing in Heavenly Creatures feels padded, wasted or dragged out. Man it’s a bit depressing to think that it’s been almost 15 years since Jackson’s last great movie.

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