Monday, March 17, 2008

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Based on the shocking Parker-Hulme murder that took place in New Zealand in 1954, 'Heavenly Creatures' is an excellent dramatic thriller with some fantasy elements. It heralded Peter Jackson's arrival as a writer director of note and is probably one of the main reasons some people believed he was the right man for Lord of the Rings when everyone else was going "Peter Who?".

Melanie Lynskey plays Pauline Parker and Kate Winslet plays Juliet Hulme. Pauline is an introverted outsider at her school, but she gets along fairly well with her family and does well with her studies. The impudent and haughty Juliet arrives from England and joins Pauline's class; both girls sit out their physical exercise class due to medical conditions, and during this time they discover that they have much in common and bond very quickly. They start hanging out together all the time, with Pauline growing attached to Juliet's well educated and wealthy family while growing ashamed of her own working class roots, particularly her mother Honorah (Sarah Peirse). What starts off as a charming friendship slowly grows into something else as the girls start to write stories that they believe will get them into the movie business in Hollywood. They begin to have delusions of grandeur and see themselves as superior to everyone around them, and soon start living out their stories in a fantasy land called the 'Fourth World'. The girls' parents become worried about the nature of the friendship, which they fear is bordering on homosexual, and attempt to keep the girls apart; this only makes them become more distant from the real world and resentful of their families, and ultimately leads to tragic consequences.

Right from the opening sequence that depicts archival footage of New Zealand from the era in which the story takes place up till the end credits, the film holds your attention. It's engrossing and the heart of the film - the friendship - is absolutely convincing and engaging despite the girls themselves being fairly unlikable, which is a testament to the writing, acting, and directing on display. The way the friendship transforms is presented in a dark and sinister light, but it also feels a little tragic. The use of actual excerpts from Pauline's diary is incredibly effective and really gets across just how twisted and messed up the two girls ultimately became while also wiping out any sympathy you might have for them. The pacing is spot on (this was the extended cut of the film) and the film never lingers; it's always progressing the characters and their stories. In addition to the central friendship, the film also thematically touches on cultural norms, the class divide, the popular culture of the era as well as familial relationships.

Jackson's work here is full of the kinetic camerawork and close ups that are his trademark, and it works surprisingly well to create a thriller out of what could easily have been a very sedate drama. Heavenly Creatures successfully creates two worlds on screen - one the world of 1950s New Zealand, and the other the fantasy 'Fourth World' populated by medieval castles and clay people. The way these fantasy elements are integrated into the film is brilliant (they sometimes even encroach upon the real world in the girls' minds), and really serve to demonstrate the girls' overactive imaginations and the extent to which they lose themselves in the 'Fourth World'. The film is atmospheric and dark, and also has elements of the unrestrained twisted sense of humour Jackson exhibited in his earlier splatter horror movies.

Winslett and Lynskey both made their film debuts here, and both made the most of the opportunity. Winslett, who went on to greater fame, initially seems overly formal and too aristocratic, but it becomes apparent that this is in fact the nature of the character - Juliet is poised, speaks with perfect diction, and is more than a little snobbish, but her presentation of these traits is something of an affectation. In the course of her friendship with Pauline she often appears vulnerable and simply a child. It's a terrific performance, and one that is matched by Lynskey, whose character is generally gloomy and morose; one can imagine her being a goth if goths were around those days. When she's with Juliet, she comes alive and is far more animated, getting caught up in admiration of her friend's exuberance. The most sympathetic character in the film, however, is not either of these two - it is, in fact, Pauline's mother Honorah, who is played to perfection by Sarah Peirse as a good natured if stern, down to earth, hard working mother who tries to do the best she can for her child while having no idea how huge their disconnect actually is.

What more is there to say? On technical merits the film fares well, and it has a fairly good if unremarkable musical score. The visual effects are exemplary - not something you normally hear being said of this sort of film, but there you go. 'Heavenly Creatures' is a landmark in Peter Jackson's career, the one that launched him on his way to becoming one of the most significant and interesting filmmakers working today. Ignoring all of that baggage, the film is a historical drama / thriller that is informative (the facts are apparently quite accurate), gripping and, by its conclusion, quite horrifying. In short, it is an excellent film that is under-appreciated and deserves to find a wider audience.


CyberKitten said...

Melanie Lynskey - one of the reasons I watch 2 1/2 Men..... [grin]

Antimatter said...

Heh heh, never seen the show myself but I guess that's as good a reason as any :)