Peter Jackson seemed to be following a formula early in his career. After the perversely comic and controversial Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Braindead, it appeared as if each subsequent film was designed to be more shocking and outrageous then the previous. His canon was beginning to show all the signs of a cult director. For his next piece, however, he completely disregarded this route and made a film that is touching, poignant and chilling in equal measure.
Based on a true notorious murder case, Heavenly Creatures started the careers of both Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet. The film focuses on the intensifying relationship – and, significantly, the reaction to this relationship – between two teenage girls, Juliet Hulme (Winslet) and Pauline Parker (Lynskey), who find solace in each other after meeting at school in 1950s Christchurch, New Zealand. They become close due to sharing common interests (a love of the tenor Mario Lanza, a hatred of movie star Orson Welles) and an outlook of incomprehension on the world they live in.
This mirrors the adults of the film who possess a similar mutual view of the ‘other’ world the two girls eventually create around themselves; Jackson makes it evident that this is a view based on fear of the unfamiliar, as well as the domineering power of naivety. Juliet and Pauline constantly become further detached from reality and eventually resort to extreme measures to prevent their relationship and, in turn, their world, from being eradicated.
Lynskey and Winslet are excellent as the insulated teenagers, with Jackson’s use of the distorted close-up perfectly setting up Lynskey’s scowl against Winslet’s unbridled magnetism. They bond through their similar emotional instability and admiration for one another’s weaknesses. As Juliet says to Pauline after seeing a scar on her leg: “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s all frightfully romantic!” To them, everything is romantic and they plan on keeping it that way. The film blends the line between fiction and reality, creating dreamlike worlds for the young couple to escape into, until, ultimately, their actions in the real world become part of their own shared fantasy.
It is this imaginary universe that makes Heavenly Creatures so interesting and complex. It acts as Juliet and Pauline’s haven, a place where they share their ideal existence away from those who intend to disrupt it. It is also a source of isolation. The world’s effect is so intense that what is generally regarded as right and wrong merge together, erasing boundaries and creating dangerous confusion and uncertainty. What was originally Juliet and Pauline’s creation now guides them – they have become servants of their own making.
The invented world can also be interpreted as a statement on the girls’ relationship. As a result of this, they have been shunned because they “see too much” of each other. Possessing strong – but deliberately ambiguous – homoerotic undertones, Heavenly Creatures is not so much a critique of lesbian teen hysteria but an indictment of adult bourgeois hysteria of sexuality of any kind in the 1950s. Not only does he tell the story of a shocking crime, Jackson also uses it to produce a potent comment on society.
Like with his other films, especially The Lovely Bones and his monumental adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson explores the themes of good and evil, innocence and sin, comedy and horror in a profoundly psychological take on what could have been any other melodramatic, based-on-true-events-style picture. It thoroughly deserved its Best Original Screenplay nomination at the 1995 Oscars, although it was part of an exceptionally tough category, with Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction taking home the prize that year. Directed with technical skill and a striking vision that successfully ensures style never overrules substance, Heavenly Creatures is a film that is simultaneously magical and disturbing. It is also Jackson’s finest work.