From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Before seeing his latest film, The Lovely Bones, I thought it fitting to seek out a gaping hole in my Peter Jackson viewing filmography: his 1994 film, Heavenly Creatures. I’ve been hearing/reading about this film since the lengthy pre-release build-up to The Fellowship of the Ring. (By the way: Wow! It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a decade since Fellowship, which was released in 2001!!) Heavenly Creatures seems to be rather well thought-of, and since the Lord of the Rings films have made me a life-long Pater Jackson fan, it seemed crazy that I had never seen this movie. It’s a situation I was happy to remedy last month.
Heavenly Creatures tells the true-life story of the friendship between two young New Zealand girls in 1953/4. Melanie Lynskey plays Pauline. An artistic, shy introvert, she is friendless and miserable at the Catholic school which she attends. Her world changes, though, when Juliet Hulme, played by Kate Winslet, arrives at her school. Juliet is from a wealthy family, and her travels with (and without) her parents make her seem extraordinarily worldly to Pauline. Like Pauline, she is artistic and bucks authority, but Juliet more outgoing and brazen. The two bond almost instantly. Deep friendships like these happen between schoolgirls all the time across the globe, with less tragic outcomes. But here, the increasingly unhappy home lives of each of the girls pushes them to become more dependent upon one another’s company, and they begin to withdraw more and more deeply into their shared fantasies. Feeding off one another, those escapist fantasies soon take a terrible turn.
Heavenly Creatures is the first screen role of both Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet. It’s no surprise that this proved to be a star-making turn for Ms. Winslet, as she displays terrific abilities and assurance for such a young actress (not to mention great beauty). As for Ms. Lynskey, I was delighted to realize that this was her first screen role as well. She’s nowhere near as well-known as Kate Winslet, but if you were an avid movie-goer in 2009 then I’d wager you’ve enjoyed her work. (She had key roles in Away We Go, The Informant!, and Up in the Air.)
Heavenly Creatures is an interesting film. I found it to be a bit hard to get into, at first. There was something about the first 45 minutes that kept me, as a viewer, from being sucked in to the story. I wasn’t sure if it was the script, the acting, or the directing, but everything seemed a bit “stagey” and over-wrought (filled with dramatic zooms and music that didn’t seem to quite fit the proceedings). With a based-on-a-true-story like this one, I was expecting a more naturalistic tone. But as the film progressed, I realized that Heavenly Creatures is not only Pauline & Juliet’s story, in many respects the film is crafted so as to be from their viewpoint. So of course things seemed overly-dramatic — EVERYTHING is overly dramatic to a pair of 14 year-old girls!
As the film progresses, we see Pauline & Juliet’s fantasy life grow and deepen, and in several inventive sequences we, the audience, are included in their fantasies. It is here where one can begin to suspect what might have drawn Peter Jackson — the man who would go on to direct The Frighteners, The Lord of the Rings, and King Kong — to this film. That’s not to say that Heavenly Creatures is a visual effects extravaganza! Oh no, the effects are very low-key, and confined to a few scenes. But these effects sequences are handled with great skill, and are an inventive and effective visual way at allowing us to understand Pauline & Juliet’s developing fantasy world.
I found myself most engaged with the film during it’s brutal final 20-or-so minutes. Once the girls decide on their horrifying course of action, Mr. Jackson takes us step-by-step through their preparations, their anticipation, and finally through the terrible moment itself. This is an agonizing sequence to watch unfold, and it is finally here where we see Mr. Jackson’s skills as a filmmaker on full display. The suspense and growing dread at what one knows is coming was positively painful to bear, and I found myself almost begging the movie to cut away! Powerful stuff.
I can’t say that I was thoroughly taken by Heavenly Creatures. Perhaps the film had been built up a bit too much in my mind. There is, without a doubt, a lot to enjoy: Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey’s first screen performances, the fantasy sequences, and those tense final 20-or-so minutes. The film is perhaps most interesting as a peek at several great talents (Winslet, Lynskey, and Mr., Jackson himself) that were about to emerge than it is a fully successful motion picture in its own right.
Still, I’m glad to have finally seen it, and it proved to be an interesting point of comparison with Peter Jackson’s 2009 film, The Lovely Bones.