Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.
Heavenly Creatures is based on the true story of two young girls in New Zealand plotting and murdering the mother of one of them. While some details have certainly been changed from reality, a cursory examination reveals that Jackson kept to the real story as much as possible, embellishing only visually rather than narratively. This is a film that contains a number of vivid flights of fancy designed to add realism to the shared hallucination of the two girls at the center of the story.
Juliet Hulme (Winslet) and her family move to Christchurch, New Zealand, where Juliet is enrolled in school. It is here that she meets Pauline Yvonne Parker (Melanie Lynskey). The two bond over childhood ailments. Pauline had serious issues with her legs while Juliet has had bouts of serious lung ailments. After this initial bonding, the two find that they are kindred spirits in many ways. They create their own fantasy world called Borovnia and begin telling a continuing story, taking roles as the king and queen of the land. This coincides with Juliet’s belief in something called the Fourth World, a heaven for artists, musicians, and actors where the two believe they will spend eternity.
Juliet contracts tuberculosis, which leads to several important events. First, it means she must be quarantined in a hospital for months, separating the two girls from each other. Second, her parents go on a trip back to England, abandoning her. Since Juliet has abandonment issues from previous illnesses, this isolates her completely, making her dependent on the extensive letters she gets from Pauline, which are written both as herself and as her Borovnia persona of the king. Third, Pauline, isolated herself, is romanced by the family lodger John (Jed Brophy), who she calls Nicholas, an event that further isolates Juliet and forces her further into their fantasy realm of the Fourth World.
All of this eventually drives the two girls even closer together, and the two rely even more heavily on their fantasy world as real world stresses close in on them, and it drives a wedge between Pauline and her mother. Their fantasy world becomes increasingly violent. When their parents suspect the two girls of developing a lesbian relationship and seek to separate them permanently by sending Juliet to South Africa, they become positively murderous, with Pauline’s mother as the target.
Jackson and his co-author Fran Walsh were smart enough to understand that the story here, which appears to mimic the reality of the two girls in Christchurch, is compelling enough to not need much in the way of narrative embellishment. Instead, they work with the visuals to bring the fantasy world of Borovnia to life. Since the girls make clay figurines of their characters, the fantasy world is replete with life-sized clay replicas of their characters and of their favorite singers and actors, all of which move and speak. It’s both fantastic and childish, a perfect blend of fully-realized fantasy and childish whimsy.
These are career-making performances for both Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, and it was the first film role for both. While neither became a star specifically because of this (Winslet needed Titanic, while Lynskey has had a good career without becoming a commonly-known actor), this is precisely the sort of role that causes directors to look at casting decisions in future projects. Both are exquisite and are real. They are annoying as characters because of the depth of their buy-in to their fantasy world, their precociousness, and their nearly perfect mix of both childish and adult emotions.
Heavenly Creatures is a beautiful film, but not an easy watch, if only because it becomes so dark so quickly. And yet, it is this darkness that makes the film so compelling and so worth watching. Giving in to the darkness that these girls wrap themselves in is what makes the film work, and it’s worth watching from both the perspective of the audience and from the perspective of the girls themselves. There’s a beauty in it hard to describe, but worth experiencing.
Why to watch Heavenly Creatures: Peter Jackson between his worlds of horror and fantasy.
Why not to watch: You’ll never want to punch Kate Winslet harder than you will watching her in this film.