Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

The Frighteners

TITanic 2000

Lord of the Rings

Heavenly Creatures

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Our rating: four LAVA® motion lamps.

Heavenly Creatures
Juliet and Pauline enter
the Fourth World.
"'Tis a miracle, one must feel, that two such heavenly creatures are real."

No, no, we're not speaking of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. The quote refers to Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker (not their real names), the teenage friends who murdered Parker's mother when their parents threatened to break up their rather intense friendship in 1954. The two were convicted by New Zealand courts in a highly publicized trial and spent a few years in jail before being released on the condition that they never meet again. The quote came from Parker's diaries, which were also used as evidence in the case.

In Heavenly Creatures, the story of the friendship is retold, with Winslet as Juliet and Melanie Lynskey as Pauline. Director/screenwriter Peter Jackson recreated the story with the help of public records and Pauline's diaries, which chronicle both the friendship between the two girls and their plan to kill Honora Parker, Pauline's mother.

Pauline is an outcast at her all-girls' parochial school in Christchurch, New Zealand, but soon finds a fellow outcast in the school's newest student, Juliet (Winslet). Juliet has traveled the world with (and without) her father, an academic, and mother, a socialite marriage counselor, and doesn't seem quite in place anywhere -- mostly due to her incessant, cheeky chatter. Juliet coaxes Pauline out of her perpetual sulkiness and the two quickly become friends.

Juliet, despite her cheerful but arrogant and even combative facade, is actually an emotional cripple. Because she had respiratory illness when she was a child, her parents sent her to recuperate in the Bahamas alone. Juliet never got over the experience of being without her family for four years. She puts up a good facade so as not to disappoint her stiff-upper lip British parents, but she lives in fear of abandonment.

Heavenly Creatures
Lynskey (left) as Pauline,
and Kate Winslet as Juliet.
Pauline's family life, on the other hand, is totally mundane. It may be that mundanity that makes Pauline so interested in writing about a fantasy world called Borovnia that the girls create. Soon Pauline and Juliet are writing the history of the imaginary kingdom, a story rife with sex and violence. Not coincidentally, many of the characters in Borovnia bear a resemblance to people and celebrities who affect the lives of Juliet and Pauline, including the "hideous" Orson Welles.

The friendship of the two girls is remarkable in its intensity, and it soon begins to revolve around bizarre rituals. They listen to Mario Lanza records and moon over the Italian crooner. They imagine what it would be like in the Fourth World, which Juliet describes as being like Heaven but better, because there are no Christians there. And finally, in a fantastic computer-enhanced sequence they actually enter the Fourth World.

The girls' respective parents notice their "unhealthy" behavior, and set about trying to get the girls to separate. Juliet's parents even make plans to move away, especially once Pauline is subjected to prodding by the local psychiatrist, who delivers a mixture of humor and shock when he haltingly pronounces the word "homosexuality." As we mentioned above, Heavenly Creatures takes place in the 50's, so that word does not come easily to the "respectable" people who populate the movie, though it is obvious they have been thinking it for some time.

Although not entirely sympathetic to these teen murderesses, the film portrays Pauline and especially Juliet as likable, benign young women caught up in each other and in their own fantasies. They come together to escape from the outside world, but the outside world has its ways of finding them out nonetheless. When society condemns their relationship, the results are calamitous. Left to themselves, Juliet and Pauline might well have been happy and grown old together, or parted peacefully in time. Forced apart, they struck back as viciously as they knew how.

Heavenly Creatures
Diello, a resident of Borovnia,
comes to life.
Credit is due mostly to Jackson, who obviously feels a great attachment to these people and fascination for the events. Jackson brings the Fourth World and Borovnia alive for us through both computer-generated special effects and more traditional makeup wizardry. The best of these involve the characters of Borovnia coming alive, and they are portrayed as the girls fashioned them, as animated life size clay figures. These scenes are all the more enthralling for their intrusion on the everyday world of New Zealand, and for the way they fit so perfectly into the imaginary worlds the girls describe. In addition, the gut-wrenching fright and disgust inspired by the indirectly-shot murder sequence puts to shame nearly every horror movie ever made.

Winslet and Lynskey are perfect. Winslet evinces the too-cheerful disposition of a person for whom panic is always around the corner. Lynskey's moody Pauline is just sinister enough to make you believe she could murder her own mother, and yet pathetic enough to inspire pity at the same time.

Heavenly Creatures is at once a shocking and uplifting film. Although the ultimate outcome is obliquely previewed at the beginning of the story, casting a shadow over the rest of the movie, the friendship portrayed between the two girls manages to inspire delight nevertheless. If our review of Jackson's The Frighteners seemed bitter, it was because we had seen this, his crowning achievement thus far, and we knew he was capable of more.

Review date: 03/29/1998

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