DRAMA: Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Heavenly Creatures (New Zealand, 1994)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Peirse, Diana Kent

When I reviewed Bernie more than two years ago, I spoke about the tendency for films based on true crime stories to become sensationalistic. Even films which boast top-end production values and push for awards recognition can be as guilty of exploiting personal misery as any down-and-out, trashy B-movie. The truly successful efforts in this sub-genre - including Richard Linklater's film - work hard to build up tension and drama on their own merits, rather than piggy-backing on the public's awareness of a crime.
For those of us who grew up with The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, Heavenly Creatures will come across as a pleasantly unsettling surprise. After his initial experiments in 'splatstick' with Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Braindead, this is the film which saw director Peter Jackson come of age. Taking a real-life murder as its subject, it manages to tackle a traumatic event in New Zealand's history with engaging grace, balancing childlike humour with a deepening sense of threat. While it doesn't quite reach the dramatic heights of his later works, it is an excellent way of demonstrating how he got there.
Jackson has always had a vested interest in the magical and fantastical, long before he seriously entertained making The Lord of the Rings. His love of the original King Kong, fairy tales and ghosts (which he later explored in The Frighteners) runs through his films like an ethereal ribbon, scattered across the sword blades, severed heads and lawnmowers of his more physical scenes. He was therefore an ideal choice to take on a story about two young killers in which a central component is their shared fantasies, which grow increasingly elaborate as their complex relationship develops.
Heavenly Creatures was made at a time when CG effects were still in their infancy. In the aftermath of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Hollywood directors started to over-use CGI with caprice, needlessly shoving it into sequences which now look incredibly dated. But just as not every sci-fi film made after 1977 could afford to look like Star Wars, so the level of technology that James Cameron enjoyed was not yet cheap or flexible enough to be put in the hands of a low-budget New Zealand drama. And it's a good thing too, because one of this film's major assets is the physicality of its fantasy sequences.

The best way to describe what Jackson has achieved here is to compare this film to his later work, The Lovely Bones. Both films explore an appalling crime involving young women, and both rely to a great extent on the audience connecting with their fantasies (or similar). In The Lovely Bones, Jackson's wasn't bound by any of the same physical rules that he had to follow for The Lord of the Rings: the 'in-between' isn't subject to earthly laws of causality, gravity, logic or anything else. As a result Susie Salmon's 'heaven' quickly descended into a day-glo video game which took the worst aspects of Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come and made them more unbearably saccharine.
With Heavenly Creatures, on the other hand, Jackson's fantasy sequences are anchored by the sensibilities of our two protagonists. Knowing the kind of cultural touchstones that they would have read and encountered growing up (whether it's English knights or Mario Lanza), Jackson has a foundation on which to build something magical which is also recognisable in the real world. He takes the open gardens of the girls' parents and turns them into huge rolling meadows with fountains, just as he can turn sculptures and chess pieces into living, breathing statues. The effects may look dated to anyone who has only known CGI, but their physicality and tactility go some way towards engrossing us in the girls' story. We want to remain in their world until being parted from them becomes almost unbearable, thereby mirroring their own experience.
The film is also interesting for its treatment of female sexuality in a way which is sensitive and nuanced without ever being too well-behaved. When Jackson made Braindead, he sought to savagely parody the social mores and conventions of the 1950s, using the blood and guts of a zombie splatterfest as a means to examine a damaging Freudian relationship between the leading man and his mother. In this film he challenges the same repressive values via a well-constructed, three-dimensional relationship, which is mercifully free of the exploitative, sub-Basic Instinct approach to lesbianism which Hollywood was indulging at the time.
In its approach to female sexuality, Jackson's film is more similar to the work of Todd Haynes, who was making a name for himself around the same time with Velvet Goldmine. One could almost call it a precursor to his recent effort Carol, insofar as the attraction between the two women is something which unfolds with the deepest naturalism and comes as a surprise to both parties. Both directors play on the juxtaposition between the upstanding period setting and the so-called scandal of the love affair, with Haynes exploring this with men too in Far from Heaven. Jackson's film may not be as overtly playful as something like Tipping the Velvet, but it's still a refreshing antidote to the stuffy irrelevance being churned out by Merchant Ivory in Britain around the same time.
Like Haynes' films, the related success of Heavenly Creatures is that it doesn't define its characters purely in terms of their sexuality. This is not the period drama equivalent of Bound, in which the characters' lesbianism is virtually paraded as a primary motivation; instead it's a subtle story of how obsession causes reality to slowly slip away, and the fateful decision to choose comforting fantasy over harsh reality, until it is much too late.
At the centre of Heavenly Creatures are two people who find each other almost completely by chance and become utterly inseparable. Pauline and Juliet are both isolated from society through their history of illness, something which has created a shy vulnerability in the former and a flawed, arrogant sense of invincibility in the latter. These are women out of their own time, not through a conscious decision to embark on some great crusade, but out of a lack of connection with the moral values of their world, whether it's the church (imagining a heaven without Christians in it) or relationships (not being interested in boys).
What is so remarkable about Heavenly Creatures is how open it leaves this relationship. Even after the girls have confessed their love for each other, there remain a lot of questions about exactly what form this commitment will take. There is an unpredictability to their relationship which makes their elation all the more credible and exciting, and their eventual crime all the more shocking. Where the real-life Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were branded as "evil" by the press from the outset, Jackson is taking a leaf out of Hannah Arendt's book; he wants us to think clearly and systematically about how "evil" can naturally and unconsciously emerge. There are no clear-cut answers, and even at the end we are left with plenty of tantalising questions, like We Need To Talk About Kevin nearly two decades later.
This sense of uncertainty and unpredictability is underscored by the visuals of the film. Alun Bollinger would work with Jackson again on The Frighteners and on the second unit for The Lord of the Rings, as well as working with Ward years later on River Queen. More relevantly, he lensed Beyond Reasonable Doubt, a docudrama about Arthur Allan Thomas, who served nine years in jail for murder before being pardoned. He works with Jackson very well, contrasting the welcoming, almost Elysian greens and yellows of the landscape with purple hues in the night scenes and an ingenious close of close-ups.
The other great asset of Heavenly Creatures is its leading ladies, both of whom make their screen debuts here. It's hard to look at Kate Winslet in this period without thinking of Titanic (or worse, Hideous Kinky), and in some of her more serious roles she has a tendency to become worthy and insufferable. But here she has the same combination of mania and melancholy that made her such a great Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet two years later. Melanie Lynskey is equally good, convincingly portraying Pauline's awkward tomboyish demeanour without descending into huffish self-pity.
There are a couple of small flaws with Heavenly Creatures. Even at 99 minutes (109 in the director's cut), the pace feels a little too leisurely, with Jackson's desire to maintain ambiguity occasionally causing things to drift and repeat themselves a little bit. Equally, few of the 'adult' cast has sufficient presence to allow scenes without the two girls to avoid getting bogged down. The best of these performances comes from Clive Merrison, who is exhibiting the same stern and stubborn qualities that he would later play for laughs in Saving Grace, but even he can only do so much.
Heavenly Creatures is an ambitious and ambiguous film which rewards its audience's patience and intelligence with a drama which is credible, engrossing and inventive. Prior to The Lord of the Rings it was easily Jackson's best film, showcasing a maturity in approach and style that few would have predicted in his alien vomit days. Whatever he turns his hand to next, and how well he fares in this regard, this will always serve as a remainder that he should never be written off as a director.


NEXT REVIEW: Selma (2014)