New Statesman & Society

Heavenly Creatures
Reviewed by Jonathan Romney

Vol. 8, New Statesman & Society, 02-10-1995, pp 39(1).

This is what you call a drastic career turn. New Zealand director Peter Jackson made his name with no-budget sci-fi splatter and zombie blood baths. His new film, Heavenly Creatures, is about the intimate passion between two teenage girls in 1950s New Zealand, and features some lovely frocks and gardens.

Jackson's speciality to date has been to leave nothing to the imagination, so it is understandable that he should come a little unstuck now that his central concern is imagination itself. The heroines of his true murder story - Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, who killed Parker' s mother in Christchurch in 1954 - are driven to their crime of passion by febrile over-creativity. They meet at school, and gradually develop what Juliet's father calls "an unwholesome attachment". They come to inhabit a hallucinatory universe that begins as a shared cultvenerating Mario Lanza and Orson Welles, and blossoms into obsessional creative activity that generates a vastepic novel and accompanying plasticene figures depicting the mythical kingdom of Borovnia. Their world finally becomes Borovnia, as the entire screen around the girls digitally morphs into a celestial garden of unicorns and giant butterflies, their own private Narnia.

Quite apart from whether Jackson has a firm ironic handle on this fairy kitsch, it's his desire to take us there that is the problem. The more he wants to take us inside the girls' heads, the more we find ourselves outside them, because we are at once outside the recognisable universe and outside the film itself. We are transported into a world of digital delights, and our reference points are no longer Hitchcock or Picnic at Hanging Rock, or whatever else may come to mind; instead we find ourselves making comparisons with Jurassic Park and The Mask. We are in the unreal, but it doesn't feel like the unreal that the girls have generated in their words (words we hear in Pauline's diary, and taken verbatim from the original).

Heavenly creatures is immensely ambitious, but not really challenging, because it makes it too easy to sit back and marvel. Borovnia, a medieval world inhabited by plasticene giants, is not that much stranger than the 1950s Christchurch that represents the norm. For the newsreel that opens the film (a panorama of ersatz little Englishness straight out of Harry Enfield's Cholmeley-Warner routine) to the oddness of everyday home life ("Pikelets"! squeals Pauline's brother at teatime, "Yum!"), Jackson can't resist the opportunity to make it all exotic. Everything from the shape of Juliet's father's hat and glasses to the cut of the gymslips, is droll and wonderful to Jackson's eye. By setting up 40 years' time and cultural distance as an absolute imaginative distance, he simply makes it look as if the girls are fleeing one world of irreducible weirdness for another. There's no sense of a revolt against dead suburban banality - Jackson can't do banality except through the filter of the bizarre (for example, Pauline' s dad spoiling her Lanza reverie by singing to a mackerel).

You almost wish Jackson had done without imagination. A less fanciful film could have presented the very fact of the girls' extravagance as being something far more marvellous and enviable, simply by excluding us from it. But Jackson seems to be competing with his heroines for the wild whimsy medal, and ends up slavishly scurrying to make their visions literal.

This could have worked brilliantly as a much more prosaic film. it need not have been dead literal, but it could have been more coolly forensic, and it is the forensic moments that work best. This is an extraordinary case that begs for ordinary telling - a furiously intense teenage pash that can' the pinned down simply as a lesbian romance, although the girls do sleep together. But there are so many factors - the girls' fever for a pantheon of heartthrobs; parental rage that greets Pauline's affair with a gormless boarder; Juliet's jealousy at the sexually over charged world of her glam, cosmopolitan mother. Theirs is a passionate twindom, a consensual rage channelled into the creation of a fetishistically detailed dream universe, the only universe in which they can really be together. But their telepathic understanding is taken for granted: by keeping those visions at arms' length, the film could have left some doubt as to how much they simply shared the one vision, as opposed to each doing her own embroidery on the common frame.

Jackson is on another plane entirely in the Hitchcockian ticking away of any details. The run-up to the murder is brilliant - a stilted teatime of giggling and one more piece of cake, time counting down on a dainty little green clock; then the awkward trudge down a muddy slope, before the brick comes out of the satchel where it's been neatly stashed.

There is actually - and I hate to say this - a fine, self-effacing realist drama stashed away between these luscious folds of imagery. It thrives on precise, nervy playing for the two leads, Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. The rest is caricature and frenzy. Jackson can' t keep still for a minute, forever rushing us in and out of the undergrowth. in the title sequence, the camera scurries in and out between schoolgirls' legs like an overexcited terrier. Jackson wants too much to be in the thick of it. A view from the outside might have been another view entirely.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Statesman and Nation Publishing Company Ltd. (UK)