Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Down the Rabbit Hole

Film: Heavenly Creatures
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

It would take a very special movie to make me want to slap Kate Winslet. I like Kate Winslet a lot. She’s one of the best modern actors around and when she’s on screen, she’s always worth watching. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of a performance of hers that I haven’t enjoyed. I’m not saying such a performance doesn’t exist, mind you. I’m just saying I haven’t encountered it yet. That’s true of Heavenly Creatures despite the fact that I have never wanted to reach through the screen, grab her by the shoulders, and shake her more. It’s a testament to her skill that an actress I find so entertaining and worth watching can play a self-possessed and infuriating character this well.

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.


  1. Good review. I saw this way back when I was working my way throught the Combined IMDB Top 250 list that I had made myself. I can't remember if I saw it before or after Jackson did LOTR. I had heard of it, though. I felt it lived up to its reputation. I liked it, especially the way the girl's fantasy world was presented on screen. Instead of making it less real, it made it more real for me. Another good film from what I consider the second best year ever for movies - 1994.

    My favorite factoid about this entire thing falls into the "truth is stranger than fiction" category. Hulme (Winslet's character) later moved to Scotland and became a famous murder mystery writer under the pseudonym Anne Perry. No one knew she was Hulme until after this film came out and people tried to find out what had happened to the two girls.

  2. I'm a big fan of Winslet, too, and I had the same reaction to this film as you did. The two girls, with their unstable mental states, feed off one another, but Juliet is by far the worst of the two.

  3. @Chip--the fantasy world is ultimately what sold me on the film as a whole. It's a reasonably good film and a bizarre (and therefore interesting) story without it, but the fantasy world is what sells the whole thing because it's become the reality of the two girls. You're right--it makes it more real. (And the end of your comment begs the question about the best year ever for movies. 1939? 1967? 1982?)

    @Kim--She's so smug in this, so she's easy to dislike. And since I generally really like Kate Winslet, my only option is to decide that it's because her performance is so damn good.

    1. 1939 would be my pick for the best year ever for movies, and I'm not alone on that. I've seen others say the same thing. It had The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Rules of the Game, Young Mr. Lincoln, Only Angels Have Wings, Daybreak, Gunga Din, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, Of Mice and Men, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Drums Along the Mohawk.

      It gets the edge over 1994 from me because of the number of all-time classics. 1994 is impressive for the sheer volume of good to great films. I discussed 1994 in this post:

      Other years I'd mention as being great would be 1954 and 1974. I'd have to go look at 1967 and 1982 to refresh my memory of what came out those years. Only a few for each come to mind at the moment.

    2. 1982 would rank at or near the top for me just going by June (E.T., The Thing, Star Trek II Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner and Poltergeist. But you also get Evil Dead, Gandhi, A Christmas Story, Fitzcaraldo, and Return of the Jedi. It's a pretty solid year all around. I tossed out 1967 because, from a 1001 List perspective, it's one of the bulkier years.

      I'm not surprised by 1939 being your pick--that would rank in my short list of great years, too. So many wonderful films that year and so many that are still relevant and vital.

  4. I love this movie. I think it's one of the greatest examples of classical music being used in film when Jackson overlay's Puccini's Humming Chorus with the slow motion day trip with the mother at the end. I saw this not too long after it came out, essentially as soon as it was shown on cable. I love the sense of dread fantasy, it's just brilliant. Yes, Winslet is definitely obnoxious, but as you say, she's meant to be.

    I haven't seen it in ages, and I'm really looking forward to watching it again.

    And although Winslet "needed Titanic," she did do Sense and Sensibility between this and Titanic, the film that announced her arrival in Hollywood and netted her her first Oscar nomination.

    On the LotR special edition discs, Alan Lee talks about being recruited by Peter and Fran, and how they sent him this movie. And it was all he needed to see - after seeing Heavenly Creatures, he signed on for LotR.

    1. I can imagine I would sign on, too. And it's the fantasy world that really does it, because it's the fantasy world that shows how far down the rabbit hole goes.

      And, yeah, Sense and Sensibility which I haven't seen because Regency era and costumes and...

      Sorry, fell asleep there.

      It's worth noting she was in Branagh's Hamlet, too, and she was an awesome Ophelia.