Starring Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Peirse, Diana Kent, Clive Merrison, Simon O’Connor, Jed Brophy, Peter Elliott, Gilbert Goldie, Geoffrey Heath
Directed by Peter Jackson
Expectations: Moderate. The last time I saw this a few years ago I told myself that I’d seen it enough times.
Having risen to mythic status in genre cinema, Peter Jackson next turned his focus towards something a bit different: the true story of a New Zealand murder in the 1950s. Heavenly Creatures isn’t completely separate from his early genre efforts, though, as the film’s female protagonists have healthy, vivid imaginations which Jackson explores and brings to life. This makes Heavenly Creatures both an indie drama and a film that could have only come from the FX-minded Jackson. It definitely separates Heavenly Creatures from the pack, and it made Hollywood take notice. Just a few years earlier he was going gonzo with lawnmowers and an endless supply of fake blood, yet for his next film he receives an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay? Nobody saw that coming. For just about everyone but the gorehounds, Heavenly Creatures is the film that put Peter Jackson on the map, and is perhaps the most important film of his career.
In her first role, Kate Winslet plays Juliet, an English girl who’s just come to New Zealand with her parents. They regularly move around the world, so she is rich, cultured and a bit spoiled. She quickly makes friends with Pauline (Melanie Lynskey, also in her first role), a depressed loner and native New Zealander who lives a simpler life with her parents. Their family has boarders staying at their home to help pay the bills, but her parents are nice people who do what they can to care for Pauline. The girls bond over their shared love of things like opera star Mario Lanza, art, writing and their sickly childhoods. Pauline lived a fairly solitary life prior to meeting Juliet, and she revels in the joy of finding someone who shares so many common interests.
Their friendship grows, and the tone is light and somewhat comic. These are the happy times, when you are without cares and in the midst of young love. But the opening of the movie — a vintage travel film about the greatness of New Zealand, which is soon drowned out by screaming and shots of the girls running through the forest — continues to resonate throughout these light scenes. Something horrible has happened. The girls are covered in blood. So even though we’re witnessing how these girls came together and grew as friends, there’s an overhanging, chilling sense of dread on the horizon; we know what will ultimately come of their friendship.
In order to portray the girls’ mental state, and the level to which they believed and embraced their imaginations, Peter Jackson does everything he can to bring their fantasies alive on-screen. Much of this is achieved through practical means, but this is also the first film of Jackson’s to feature computer FX. As to be expected for an early ’90s film, these moments of early CG are the ones that look a little dated, but they are few and still work rather well for what they intend to convey. They successfully create illusions that would be relatively impossible with practical FX, so their use adds an extra level of imaginative fantasy to the girls’ special world. My favorite moment, though, is achieved through an incredible scale model of a sand castle. The camera captures a medium shot of the girls building the castle and dreaming up a story to go with it. As they talk the camera moves in towards the castle gate, and then slowly inside it. The door swings opens and now we’re inside, moving up the circular staircases to the bedroom, where the girls are visible through the windows of the room, still spinning their yarn.
Peter Jackson’s camera remains as fluid and moving as it has been since Bad Taste, and while that might seem counter-productive to this kind of story, it actually helps keep it entertaining and engrossing. The camera exhibits the youthful energy of Juliet and Pauline; the film feels “of youth” and not “about youth.” But there are also many artful touches that set this apart from Jackson’s early work. The dreamlike black-and-white sequence is perhaps the most impressive of these, both in how it counterpoints the moments that surround it and how it ultimately brings a finality to the end of the story.
Heavenly Creatures is an excellent film, albeit one that I think I’ve watched as many times as I need to — this was around my 4th or 5th time. I found it a bit long this time around, something I’ve thought more and more every time I’ve re-watched it. I still think it’s just as good as when I first watched it, I just feel like it loses something when you’re already aware of its intricacies. Definitely recommended if you haven’t seen it, though, it’s a very unique movie.
Great review. I agree that it’s something you really can’t watch over and over. Once you find its charm and its bite, it’s more than enough once through.
Thanks, Nick. I will say that I feel like I got more out of it this time than I did the last time I watched it a few years ago. But that could just be the “I’m going to write a review so pay attention” factor.
Good review Will. Started off generic and very conventional, but got very dark, very quick and really woke me the hell up. Strange to know that they still walk on the streets, even until this day.
Thanks, Dan. I don’t know that it starts off generic, but I can see where you’re coming from. Not only do they still walk the streets, Juliet is now a famous author too, under the name Anne Perry.
I haven’t seen this one in aaaaaages, but don’t recall being that enamoured with it. I’ll have to give it another shot.