(New Zealand 1994)
“All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s all frightfully romantic!”
Forget Lord of the Rings—Heavenly Creatures is Peter Jackson’s coolest film. Before big budget Hollywood blockbuster fantasy franchises, the New Zealand filmmaker wrote, produced, and directed offbeat small-scale gore and porn comedies like Bad Taste (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989), and Dead Alive (1993). I’d already seen that last one by the time Heavenly Creatures came out for a limited run (in the States, anyway) in the fall of 1994. I assumed it would be another messy splatterfest—described to me as a “lesbian murder flick,” what would you think? Turns out, that’s not quite what it is.
Far more than a “lesbian murder flick” or even a brilliant stepping stone to bigger and better things, Heavenly Creatures represents a turning point in Jackson’s career. It’s a rare example of flawless execution across the board. He brings together every element—narrative, character development, casting, visuals, special effects, dialogue, period costumes and sets—to create a real humdinger.
Christchurch, New Zealand, 1952: 14-year-old Yvonne Reiper (Melanie Lynskey), who goes by “Pauline,” is a messy-haired, brooding loner at an all-girl high school. In her first scene, she’s wearing a big scowl on her face at an assembly, not singing along with the rest of her classmates—not until the school’s headmaster (Darien Takle) catches her gaze and snaps her into line with a widening of her eyes. Pauline’s father (Simon O’Connor) manages a grocery market and her mother (Sarah Pierse) runs a room and board for college students out of their home.
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
A new student is introduced during French class: Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), the privileged daughter of a reknown college professor (Clive Merrison) and a psychologist (Diana Kent). Juliet, who proclaims she’s “actually from England” and chooses the French name “Antoinette,” captures Pauline’s attention when she insults the teacher, Miss Waller (Elizabeth Moody), unleashing a hilarious hissy fit. The scene is, in a word, awesome to watch play out. Right after that, their art teacher, Mrs. Collins (Liz Mullane), pairs the girls for an assignment that Julia disregards; instead, she draws dragon-slaying St. George, depicting him in the likeness of Mario Lanza, “the world’s greatest tenor!” She doesn’t get around to drawing Pauline, her model. Mrs. Collins isn’t impressed, but Pauline is.
Thus begins the girls’ friendship. They bond over their similar pasts involving childhood disease and extended hospital stays, a penchant for drama, and a mutual distaste for their peers (and perhaps social issues that leave a void). Juliet is mischievous and romantic, which softens Pauline and gets her to open up. Sitting out gym, they giggle over sexy WWII pulp novels. They bike through the woods and strip to their underwear, dancing and singing. They hug a bum (played by Jackson himself) on the street. They hold weird rituals for celebrities they like. They make Plasticine models, write stories, and devise an elaborate royal family tree, building around themselves a fantasy medievalesque kingdom called Borovnia where all its inhabitants worship them. Their imaginary world blurs the bounds of reality as their friendship intensifies.
A string of troubles arises that threatens to separate Pauline and Juliet: tuberculosis, an extramarital affair, a divorce, South Africa, and a medical diagnosis of incurable homosexuality. The girls decide to run away to America, but they can’t secure a passport for Pauline. They devise another scheme to stay together, but it’s a risky one: kill Pauline’s mother.
Heavenly Creatures starts out sweet—it’s something of a typical teen movie at first—but it does a complete turnaround. Based on actual events, Jackson wrote the screenplay with Frances Walsh; the real story is sad but compelling, and the script is tight. The casting—married couple John and Ros Hubbard and the aforementioned Mullane—is genius: every single actor is terrific in his or her part, even the minor ones, and it makes Heavenly Creatures all the richer. Many of them turn up in Jackson’s later projects.
Lynskey and Winslet own their characters; I can’t imagine anyone else in their roles. They’re charming, silly, histrionic, desperate, deranged, and ultimately “stark raving mad”—and they portray all of it exceptionally well. They manage to keep the homosexual subtext from getting out of hand. You can tell from Winslet’s first scene—she walks in with that crazy look on her face—that she’s destined for more. She became a star after Heavenly Creatures in a way that Lynskey didn’t, but both are mesmerizing.
The scenes in Borovnia and the Fourth World are nothing short of spectacular. Actually, many of the visuals here are burned into my memory. Alun Bollinger’s camerawork and bleached palette lends a lovely dreamlike quality. Once things start to unravel for these “nice” girls, the whole thing shifts to a darker, more sinister tone. It’s an emotional downward spiral to the end—those splatter films serve Jackson well.
Heavenly Creatures hasn’t lost its luster after nearly 25 years. I lost track of how many times I’ve seen it, yet it continues to suck me in every single time. It’s one of my favorites.
With Gilbert Goldie, Jed Brophy, Peter Elliott, Kirsti Ferry, Ben Skjellerup, Jean Guérin, Stephen Reilly, Jessica Bradley, Alex Shirtcliffe-Scott
Production: WingNut Films, New Zealand Film Commission
Distribution: Miramax Films (USA)
109 minutes (director’s cut)
(iTunes purchase) A