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Home | Film Reviews | Film Review: Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Film Review: Heavenly Creatures (1994)

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“Based on the true story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, two close friends who share a love of fantasy and literature, who conspire to kill Pauline’s mother when she tries to end the girls’ intense and obsessive relationship.” (courtesy IMDB)

From the time of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles to the more recent Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson, crimes of the heart are deemed the most evil in nature, yet are always the most intriguing. It is difficult to imagine the point at which passion turns into gruesome bloodthirsty rage against one’s own flesh and blood. Writer-director Sir Peter Jackson captures this fury in his first real masterpiece, Heavenly Creatures (1994), a unique blend of childhood innocence and fantasy that leads to the most horrid crime imaginable. Based on a true story and set in fifties New Zealand, Jackson’s extraordinary film, meshed with its shocking conclusion, reads like a Shakespearean tragedy.

Jackson takes us on a journey with two fourteen-year-old girls, Pauline and Juliet, and tells their unusual tale by intertwining Pauline’s diary entries with their dreamlike fantasies. The film begins as Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), an intelligent introverted ninth-grader at a Christchurch school, meets Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet). Juliet, a new student from England, is the antithesis of Pauline, as she possesses beauty, grace and a romanticised view of the world. As their friendship develops, they soon create an imaginary land full of castles and royalty, which they call the Fourth World, or the kingdom of Borovnia. Jackson vividly captures their medieval paradise on film as their young imaginations slip in and out of reality. Medieval clay creatures, unicorns, castles and moats fill the screen as the two girls escape into their metaphysical paradise – coming from the man who previously gave us Bad Taste (1987), Meet The Feebles (1989) and Braindead (1992), Heavenly Creatures was his most mainstream film to date.

The following year Jackson co-directed the mockumentary Forgotten Silver (1995). This incredibly ambitious and hilarious made-for-television piece told the bitter-sweet story of New Zealand film pioneer Colin McKenzie, who had supposedly invented colour film and ‘talkies’, and attempted an epic film of Salome before being forgotten by the world. Though the program was televised in a slot normally reserved for drama, no warning was given that it was fictionalised, and many were outraged at discovering Colin McKenzie had never existed. The success of Heavenly Creatures helped pave the way for Jackson’s first big-budget Hollywood film, The Frighteners (1996), starring Michael J. Fox. Thanks partly to support from American producer Robert Zemeckis, Jackson was given permission to make this comedy-horror film entirely in New Zealand despite being set in a North American town. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But back to Heavenly Creatures: At the peak of their friendship, Juliet is stricken with tuberculosis and admitted to a hospital for four months. Devastated by her absence, Pauline falls into a severe depression and develops a growing hatred for her own mother. Soon Pauline and Juliet’s parents become increasingly alarmed by the girls obsessive relationship. Unable to relate to their youth and innocence, the parents think they may be – gasp – lesbians. They order limited contact between the two because they feel their relationship is not ‘normal’.

To make it easier on themselves, the Hulmes decide it is in the best interest of Juliet’s health to send her to South Africa to stay with relatives. Pauline decides she must accompany Juliet, yet there is an obstacle: Her mother will not allow her to go. The girls decide that, regardless of the consequences, they will do whatever it takes to be together – even if involves murder. As Juliet so eloquently puts it, “Only the best people fight against all obstacles in the pursuit of happiness.”

They say that casting is 95% responsible for a film’s success, and it couldn’t be more true than in the case of Heavenly Creatures. The magnetic chemistry of the two young actresses enables them to realistically portray the unusual bond between Pauline and Juliet. Kate Winslet achieved recognition for her subsequent work in Sense And Sensibility (1995) and for her leading role in Titanic (1997), the highest grossing film for more than twelve years. Since then, Winslet’s performances have continued to draw positive comments from film critics, and she has been nominated for various awards for her work in such films as Quills (2000), Iris (2001), Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004), Finding Neverland (2004), Flushed Away (2006), Little Children (2006), The Reader (2008) and Revolutionary Road (2008).

Melanie Lynskey hasn’t been exactly resting on her laurels after Heavenly Creatures, either. Her first appearance on American film was as Jacqueline de Ghent in Ever After (1998) opposite Drew Barrymore and Anjelica Huston, which was quickly followed by roles in films such as Detroit Rock City (1999), But I’m A Cheerleader (1999), The Cherry Orchard (1999), and Coyote Ugly (2000), in which she took on a New Jersey accent. In 2002 she played her first television role in the Stephen King mini-series Rose Red. She then appeared alongside Katie Holmes in Abandon (2002), and Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama (2002), and guest-starred twice in The Shield. She also played the female lead opposite Matt Damon in the Steven Soderbergh black comedy The Informant! (2008). Soderbergh quite rightly said, “She is so watchable, you never quite know what you’re going to get, you just know it’s going to be good. Her rhythms are really unusual, like her cadence and her reaction times to things, and the way she sort of lays out a sentence. It’s just really, really interesting.”

Ironically, after the completion of the filming of Heavenly Creatures, it was discovered that the real Juliet Hulme presently resides in England, where she is a best-selling murder-mystery novelist who has been writing under the name Anne Perry for many years. As far as anyone knows, the two women have not seen each other since that ill-fated afternoon. And it’s with that thought in mind that I’ll ask you to please join me next week when I shall discuss another for Horror News. Until then, good night and remember, as my old friend Bela Lugosi would say, “Bevare! Bevare of the big, green dragon that sits on your doorstep – and the gifts it leaves on your lawn.” Toodles!

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

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