Monday, October 24, 2011

Classic Throwback: Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994)

Heavenly Creatures is a pretty extraordinary film. Having never seen any of Peter Jackson’s work prior to The Lord of the Rings (2001-03), the skilled craftsmanship and the imaginative vision he brings to this film, not to mention drawing fantastic performances from his young and inexperienced leads was a surprise. Opening to strong critical acclaim at the Venice Film Festival in 1994, Jackson’s film is shot on-location in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the notorious Parker-Hulme murder case, which the film depicts, occurred.

I was gripped to Heavenly Creatures from the opening frames, which features the shrill screams of two young women as they run hysterically through a forest. The energetic camera tracks them from several different perspectives - closely following them, capturing them from a medium distance and often acting as their POV. It’s an intriguing opening and presents a mystery. Why are the girls hysterical? Why are they covered in blood? The hyperactive pace of this scene, which features plenty of quick cuttings and innovative camerawork, is matched throughout the film as the story (from a screenplay co-written by Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh which received an Academy Award nomination) rips along, effectively develops the girl's unique friendship and their motivations for their actions and barely wastes a minute.

Heavenly Creatures, set in the 1950’s, deals with the intense, obsessive relationship between the withdrawn and antisocial Pauline Parker (Lynskey), who comes from a working class family, and Juliet Hulme (Winslet), a charismatic upper-class English girl who transfers to Pauline’s high school. They initially bond over their shared history of childhood ailments, with the surly and bitter Pauline becoming more outgoing spurred on by Juliet’s equal intelligence and outspoken nature. They confide in one another, write stories (and dream of becoming published in Hollywood), comment on popular film stars, make clay figurines and construct alternate realities – a fantasy kingdom called Borovnia, and a safe haven called ‘The Fourth World”.

Pauline's relationship with her mother becomes increasingly hostile, and she spends most of her time at the Hulme's place. Juliet's father becomes concerned by the girl's 'friendship' prompting Pauline's parents to take her to a doctor. She is diagnosed with a 'disorder' attributed to her hostility towards her mother. The pair become inseparable and when their unique bond is threatened, with Juliet having to move away to South Africa with her father and leave Pauline alone again, they take extreme and severely misguided measures to ensure that doesn’t happen. To learn that these events are based on true ones is quite astounding. In the text that appears following the film it is revealed the diaries that we see Pauline frequently writing in, and narrating the story from, are the primary evidence linking the discovered crime to the girls.

This is great direction from Jackson who possesses originality in his visuals, utilising an assortment of intriguing techniques and angles to shoot his film from. It never seems like two shots are the same. He also deftly blends the girl’s fantasy world with their less favourable reality and on occasions the two blur beyond their comprehension. They start to call one another by alternative names, and we witness their surroundings alter. The clay figurines they create together embody their fantasy kingdom and become life-size and creepy. Even the first time we visit Juliet’s house it appears to be a dream sequence before we discover that it is just the youngsters playing. 

The use of opera is also important – Pauline loves opera and when she discovers that Juliet also does, she races home to play a record. There are numerous sequences in Heavenly Creatures accompanied by opera music. The film is let down a little by the middle. It becomes a little odd, and there is a less effective arc introduced between Pauline and an infatuated lodger, where the pair experiments with sex and Pauline continues to rebel against her parent's ideals. She is separated from Juliet, who is suffering from Tuberculosis and bed-ridden, which prompts jealousy.

The central performances are incredible and transformed the young actresses, who each appear in their debut roles as unknowns, into up-and-coming stars. While Lynskey’s career (she was 17 at the time) didn’t take off as much as Winslet’s, it remains an outstanding performance. I actually had no idea she was born in New Zealand. Kate (19 at the time) received acclaim for her impeccable performance here and the talent she has consistently displayed over the last 17 years is evident in almost every scene in Jackson’s film.

She went on to receive Academy Award nominations for Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Titanic (1997) and has since become one of Hollywood’s elite stars and the youngest person to be credited with six Academy Award nominations. Heavenly Creatures is a compelling experience that is important because it was one of the most acclaimed films released out of New Zealand at the time, tells of a horrific true story and revealed the immense talents of Peter Jackson and Kate Winslet to the world. Many of us who admire their work can be thankful for that, at least.


  1. Seriously man, how bout that opening? Crazy shit. It's interesting to examine the course that Winslet and Lynskey's careers have taken. Despite the fact that they are equally talented, one is one of the most famous actresses working today while the other has stayed under the radar.

    I love Lynskey, and I thought she was unrecognizable here. Great review of a surprisingly good flick.

  2. I still want to see this and I've been wanting to though I never found the time to. In fact, Lynskey's career is doing quite fine. She played Matt Damon's wife in The Informant!.

  3. Being a Kiwi, this is one of my favourite films to have come from this country. Just a fantastic story, shot beautifully, with great acting. Thanks for reviewing!

  4. @ Alex - The opening is insane. Immediately had me hooked. The flick was damn good. I had heard this, but I was still surprised.

    Yeah, judging by these roles here they both could have become major stars. Kate had more of a movie star look (much prettier) and only a few years later she landed Titanic (still only 22 - i never realised how young she was in that film) while Lynskey didn't take on any substantial roles (i don't think). I don't mind Lynskey, but something about her voice puts me off a little. Plus I only seem to remember her from Two and Half Men, where she is mightily annoying.

    @ Steven - Yeah, that's true. She also had a role in Win Win, where she wasn't bad. She's still young (early 30's) and has plenty of roles ahead of her, for sure. You should check it out, man!

  5. Sorry Tyler, I missed your comment (it was under SPAM haha). I enjoyed watching/reviewing it. My knowledge of New Zealand cinema isn't great, but this is surely one of your most famous films. It's superbly directed by Jackson (and this has prompted me to go further back in his career now) and acted by two genuine talents.

  6. This was one brilliant of those films which I'm proud to be a Kiwi because of it. NZ cinema has never really been that great (to me, anytway), but this one is one of the finest I've seen. It was some crazy stuff, but it was crazy good!

  7. Crazy is right. Yeah, with the exception of Once Were Warriors and more recently Whale Rider, NZ films have not been all that iconic. This is one that steps it up. Loved Jackson's work here. This film might have been the reason he was selected to direct The Lord of the Rings!