Cineaste, 12-01-1995

By John Fried

Vol. 21, Cineaste, 12-01-1995, pp 51.

In the opening sequence of Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, a travelogue film details the wonders and beauties of Christchurch, a seemingly bucolic New Zealand community. These scenes of steepled churches, rolling hills, and lush dales are abruptly interrupted by tracking and handheld shots of two young girls running frantically through the woods. As the narration reaches its monotonous close, the film cuts to the two girls exiting the woods, their bodies bloodied, screaming that "Mother's been killed." Like the haunting contrast of the white- picket-fenced community and a sliced ear in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, this prologue similarly sets the film's dark tone by pairing the mundane with the perversely bizarre.

Based on the true story of Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), who in 1954 plotted and killed Pauline's mother, Honora (Sarah Peirse), the screenplay draws from the pages of Pauline' s diary to reconstruct the events leading up to the brutal matricide. A dumpy working class girl, Pauline is immediately attracted to the cosmopolitan and beautiful Juliet and her carefree disregard for authority. The girls form an intense bond, an adolescent amour fou. Their parents become increasingly concerned, unwittingly drawing the girls even closer as allies in the 'war' against the dogma of adulthood. In their need to escape, the two construct an elaborate narrative, an Arthurian kingdom with rakish men and damsels in distress. They build shrines to their heroes, James Mason and Mario Lanza, and conjure up nightmarish fantasies of their ominous foe, Orson Welles.

What makes Heavenly Creatures so fascinating is that Jackson literally renders these fantasies on the screen. The small clay figurines that Juliet molds as characters in their story transform into lifesize clay people who save them from the wretched adults. In one sequence, Pauline is being probed by a psychiatrist about the appropriateness of her relationship with Juliet. Frustrated with the doctor's inquiries, Pauline imagines the roguish hero of their fantasy tale impaling the doctor, much to her delight. In another sequence, the two girls are chased home by Harry Lime, Orson Welles's character from The Third Man, his black-and-white screen image framed inside their world of color.

Throughout the film, Jackson highlights this frightening tale's elements of social class, suggesting that this act of matricide resulted not only from the frenzy of teen angst but that it was also possibly a product of their social positions. Juliet's furtive imagination is condoned in the bourgeois household of a philosopher father and marriage counselor mother. Pauline's imaginary musings, by comparison, take on the quality of dementia, seemingly due to her working-class background. Though the psychological dimension of Juliet's penchant for the imaginary is derived from parental neglect, Pauline's is attributed to class envy, to a desire to rid herself of her own identity, rather than just lose herself momentarily in fantasy.

Jackson's portrait of the two self-pro-claimed "heavenly creatures" is ultimately far more sympathetic to the trials of adolescence than critical of their crime. But Heavenly Creatures never presumes to be a documentary. Instead, we are privy to a fascinating murder story, a perverse coming-of-age tale told from the unlikely perspective of those on the wrong side of the law. And unlike Jackson's previous gorelest flicks (Bad Taste, Dead Alive), the monsters and demons of this artfully crafted film are not otherworldly but set in the guise of adulthood and a rigid moral code.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Sarah Peirse (left), Melanie Lynskey (center) and Kate Winslet star in Heavenly Creatures.

~~~~~~~~ By John Fried Directed by Peter Jackson; starring Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Peirse, Diana Kent and Sam O'Connor; VHS, color, 99 rains. A Miramax homevideo release.

Copyright 1995 by Cineaste.