Lionsgate // 1994 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 5th, 2011
The true story of a crime that shocked a nation.
"Only the best people fight against all obstacles in pursuit of happiness."
Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey, Up in the Air) is an ordinary New Zealand teen who comes from an ordinary middle-class family. Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet, The Reader) is an intelligent, spirited British girl who's just begun attending Pauline's school. The two girls hit it off almost immediately, and soon find themselves sharing an unshakeable bond. Pauline and Juliet take fanciful trips to a wondrous imaginary world, and begin co-authoring a novel of immense depth and melodrama. However, as time passes, Pauline and Juliet find themselves wandering ever deeper into a world of madness and violence.
Peter Jackson must have seemed like an exceptionally odd fit for a film like Heavenly Creatures when he was first attached to the project (perhaps even odder a fit than he seemed when he was tapped to helm The Lord of the Rings trilogy). What was the director of wicked, gory, fantastical little movies like Bad Taste and Dead Alive doing with the grim, heartbreaking true story of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme? However, Jackson's grand imagination and irreverent sensibilities proved a surprisingly strong fit for the story, as Heavenly Creatures is anything but a cheerless docudrama.
The brilliance of Jackson's screenplay (co-written with longtime collaborator Fran Walsh) is that it regards the infamous Parker/Hulme murder case from the perspective of the two troubled young women. As such, the grown-ups in their lives are regarded as cartoonish buffoons and malicious, self-absorbed villains. The murder of Pauline's mother (wisely revealed during the film's opening sequence before the remainder of the movie plays out in flashback) is by no means excused or validated, but Jackson so thoroughly immerses the viewer in the girls' shared fractured mindset that it makes a certain kind of sense...at least until it actually occurs, and the girls are confronted with the unshakeable horror of real-life bloodshed.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Heavenly Creatures is the way it captures the burning intensity of adolescent relationships. Pauline and Juliet aren't just friends; they're soul mates who write long, sprawling letters to each other each day and allow their relationship to drown out nearly every other element of their lives (families, teachers and peers are merely nuisances that pop up to make trouble from time to time). They obsess about an imaginary "Fourth World" and the handsome pop culture saints (James Mason, Mario Lanza, etc.) who reside there. On one occasion, they spend the night making love, as they imagine the various sexual inclinations of each of these saints. The film suggests that Pauline and Juliet weren't really lesbians, but rather friends so intimate that they had no hesitations about crossing sexual boundaries as they explored their fantasies together.
There's a surprising measure of humor present throughout Heavenly Creatures, as Jackson takes satirical swipes at a wide variety of authority figures (teachers less educated than students, ministers convinced that physical ailments can be cured with religious faith, physicians convinced that homosexuality is a dangerous mental disorder, parents completely clueless about what's really happening in the lives of their children) as they attempt to aid, educate or "cure" the girls. The film also has some fun with the sheer silliness of some of the fantasies the girls create; some sequences have the surreal cheekiness of a Monty Python sketch. Some cried foul at the seemingly lighthearted approach to such dark material, but these moments only make the (increasingly fleeting) glimmers of cold, hard reality all the more terrifying. In a handful of scenes, Jackson does a splendid job of capturing the duo's desperate attempts to maintain the fantasy; rushing back in terror as reality occasionally flickers in (this is done most effectively in a sequence in which Pauline loses her virginity to a doltish older boy).
Heavenly Creatures was the feature film debut of both Lynskey and Winslet, and they both turn in superb work. Of course, Winslet has gone on to win countless awards while Lynskey is probably best-known as a recurring character on Two and a Half Men, but somehow that seems in line with the characters they play. Winslet's Juliet is strong, confident and remarkably good at about just everything she attempts; Lynskey's Pauline is simply thrilled to be invited along for the ride. Winslet is the more commanding presence of the two (the level of confidence she demonstrates in front of a camera is astonishing), but its Lynskey's more muted, desperate persona which leaves a lasting impression. After Heavenly Creatures was released, it was discovered that Pauline was living a quiet life and running a children's riding school, while Juliet had adopted the name of Anne Perry and gone on to great success as a writer of crime fiction. Given the portraits Lynskey, Winslet and Jackson offer, those facts are entirely unsurprising.
Heavenly Creatures (Blu-ray) has received a warm, appealing 2.35:1/1080p transfer which exceeded my expectations. It had been a long while since I had seen the film in standard-def, but I remembered it looking a bit dingy. This transfer is a vast improvement, offering vibrant colors which highlight the full beauty of the fantasy sequences (which, it should be noted, are dramatically better than the more expensive but less inspired otherworldly fantasies in Jackson's The Lovely Bones). The level of detail is strong, blacks are deep and there are only a few scratches and flecks present. The audio gets the job done nicely, offering crisp, clean dialogue and some well-captured moments of sound design. My only complaint would be with Peter Dasent's hit-and-miss score, which sometimes employs some ill-advised synthetic pieces which have aged rather badly (his thematic ideas are sound, however). Supplements are disappointingly limited to a theatrical trailer. It should be noted that this disc contains the longer, uncut, 109-minute version of the film.
Heavenly Creatures is easily the better of the two "transitional" films in Peter Jackson's career (the other would be the middling horror/fantasy The Frighteners), and offers some of the most unique direction the often-tedious true crime genre has seen.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R