Dir: Peter Jackson
Today, Peter Jackson is one of the major names in world cinema, and one of the most commercially and critically successful directors in the world, but it was not always so. In 1994, when Heavenly Creatures came out, Jackson was the mad maverick behind splattery black comedies like Bad Taste, Braindead and his 'Muppets from Hell' movie Meet the Feebles. It was, then, something of a surprise that he should be the filmmaker to tackle one of his native New Zealand's most infamous and shocking murder cases.
Heavenly Creatures tells the story of the intense friendship between fifteen year old Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) and Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), which ended up, when the girls were to be separated, in the brutal murder of Pauline's Mother (Sarah Pierse). The girls, from opposite ends of the economic scale, bond over their shared history of medical problems ("All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases") and their creativity. This creativity bleeds into a fantasy world and the girls become increasingly obsessed with and dependent on it and on each other.
In many ways Heavenly Creatures is very different to Peter Jackson's previous films; it's set - largely - in the real world, deals with real people and events and is notably less extreme than the likes of Braindead, but it also shares DNA with those films, and is clearly the product of the same directorial mind. Jackson starts the film, after a shocking opening flash forward, by grounding us in the real world, we get footage from a promotional film for Christchurch, New Zealand, where the film is set, and a rather conventional looking (if beautifully shot) first couple of reels, however, as Juliet and Pauline become closer, and as their shared fantasy world develops further, Jackson allows his camerawork to become more and more extreme. As the film goes on it slips more and more frequently and freely into fantasy, and Jackson, even in the real world, plays up the oddness of his characters visually with offbeat, off centre angle choices. This, however, ceases for the climactic murder, which is rendered in brutal and disturbing detail.
What Jackson achieves by this is not just a film with a very individual feel, but one that draws us into the world and the psyche of its leading characters. The people that Juliet and Pauline dislike are seen almost as caricatures, and are shot in a larger than life way, often looming into frame (see the doctor who diagnoses Pauline as a lesbian, or the priest who comes to see a convalescing Juliet when she's hospitalised with TB), and their fantasies are rendered in stark contrast to the world around them, which is often drab. In the fantasy sequences even dowdy Pauline is transformed into a beautiful princess, colours are sharper and more saturated and everything is heightened.
The film is packed with memorable sequences and images in both the real and the fantasy worlds; an idyllic sequence early in the film in which the girls run through the woods, stripped to their underwear, singing and dancing makes for a sharp contrast with the almost nightmarish (and brilliantly cine literate) scene after they have seen a screening of The Third Man, and find themselves chased by "the most hideous man in the world", Orson Welles.
This contrast between the way the girls see the world as opposed to those around them is also drawn with a set of very strong performances. Sarah Pierse is particularly notable as Honora Parker; a mother who gets angry with her daughter through love and worry. Pauline sees her as the villain, but the film is very matter of fact about her, painting her neither as saint nor sinner and Pierse gives a very grounded performance which makes the march to the end (which, even if you don't know everything from the opening, is explicitly revealed as Pauline and Juliet plan the killing) absolutely bone chilling and deeply sad. The cafe scene at the end of the film (shot in the real location) is a great showcase for both Pierse and Melanie Lynskey, whose exhortation to her Mother to "treat yourself" to the last cream cake takes on a cold menace in context. There are also fine performances from the other actors playing the Hulme and Parker parents; Clive Merrison and Diana Kent as Juliet's upper class Mother and Father and Simon O'Connor as Pauline's fishmonger Father.
In the end though, the film rests on the shoulder of its two young stars, then sixteen (Lynskey) and seventeen (Winslet) and both making their film debut. Both are outstanding. Winslet is, at first glance, perhaps a bit over dramatic, but this is Juliet; she's a person of extremes, everything is either wonderful or ghastly, people are saints (James Mason, Mario Lanza and more) or 'the most hideous man alive' (the aforementioned Orson Welles), and her stories are packed with beautiful kings and queens, psychotic children and gorgeous gypsy girls. She's a drama queen, and Winslet plays that side of her perfectly. This - along with her distant relationship with her parents - also gives us an insight into why Juliet, clearly much more intelligent than Pauline, forms such an obsessive attachment to her young friend. Melanie Lynskey is also brilliant here. Her performance got less notice than Winslet's and, seventeen years later, she remains an undervalued talent. This is probably because Pauline, outside of her diary entries (all of which are real, and brilliantly read by Lynskey), she is a much more held in character. It's tough to understand a relationship like this, and a character like Pauline, but Lynskey plays her, seemingly without judgement, as just one more troubled, taciturn, teenager. By taking that starting point and moving the character credibly on through this growing obsession we get to understand how things end up as they do, because we see how Pauline, in contrast to the very open and expressive Juliet, holds her resentment in a tight ball until it explodes. These are two very contrasting and equally excellent performances.
I first saw Heavenly Creatures about fifteen years ago, and it has a special place in my heart. It was one of the first films that really interested me in cinema that was more offbeat and made beyond the US, and it was one of the first films that me and my best friend bonded over (yes, I realise that sounds odd, but honestly we're perfectly normal). For my money it remains as brilliant now as it ever was, it stands out in the distinguished filmographies of both Jackson and Winslet, and is a fascinating film about obsession and about murder. This, amazingly, is its first DVD release in the UK, and I'm really happy that a new generation of cinephiles, who may not have seen any of Jackson's pre Lord of the Rings work will now, at last, get a chance to discover this masterpiece.
I received a screener copy of Heavenly Creatures, which did not include the extras. The release copy will boast a 'Looking Back' featurette with Kim Newman, Alan Jones and Rosie Fletcher and four postcards. I can't help but wish there was more; a Jackson commentary, a proper retrospective with the cast and the alternate cut, which is ten minutes or so longer, would all have been welcome.
That said, what we do have is a beautiful looking Blu Ray transfer. The film has been remastered, and looks like it was shot yesterday; the print has some grain structure, but is free of speckles and damage. The edges are sharp without seeming over enhanced, the colours pop brilliantly and there is a good deal of depth in the image (which is also, for the first time in the UK, in the film's original 2.35:1 ratio). This transfer perhaps doesn't have the jaw dropping appearance of a Terminator 2 or the 'wow, look how nicely that cleaned up' impact of some of Arrow's video nasty releases, but it's still a great job, and as good as this film is ever likely to look.