After directing several quirky, gory and darkly witty horror-comedy projects early in his career, the man we love to call PJ helmed this 1994 film, co-written with wife Fran Walsh. Heavenly Creatures is one of my personal favorites. It’s categorized as a crime drama, and there is a grisly and shocking murder that takes place in the film. And yet that description falls short of this film, based on a true story, which combines whimsicality, fantasy, kindred spirits and the deep and the sometimes dark and twisted obsessions of adolescence. As Jackson himself said, “It’s a film about a friendship that went terribly wrong.”
Based on the true story of a shocking murder committed by two teenagers in New Zealand in the mid-50s, Heavenly Creatures, filmed on location in Christchurch, focuses on the relationship between two school girls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme. Pauline, who comes from a working-class home, and the slightly older and more sophisticated Juliet, an English expat from a wealthy family, meet when Juliet is transferred to Pauline’s school. The more introverted Pauline is drawn to Juliet’s outspoken nature, her beauty and her vivid imagination.
Both girls have suffered from serious childhood illnesses and the hospitalizations they required, and they bond in a special way. The creative pair paint, write stories together, share their love for Mario Lanza and Orson Welles, and create a mythical fantasy kingdom called Borovnia, based on the plasticine figures they sculpt. They hope to turn those Borovnian adventures into Hollywood screenplays one day.
Even as the two become increasingly involved in their happy fantasy world, real life intervenes as the relationship between Pauline and her mother turns into a constant battleground. In contrast, Juliet’s family offers a peaceful, more intellectual atmosphere. Pauline spends more and more time with the Hulmes.
Eventually, the two are separated by Juliet’s flare-up of tuberculosis, requiring an extended hospital stay. They begin an intense correspondence, sometimes taking on the personas of the royals of Borovnia and indulging in violent fantasies involving those seen as oppressing them. The clip below is from one such fantasy of Juliet’s that takes place at the sanitarium where she is recuperating.
After Juliet’s health is restored, the relationship between the girls only deepens. Their parents become concerned it is too intense a relationship, perhaps even of a sexual nature (although that is never spelled out and both the women later said it was not a lesbian relationship). Attempts are made to separate the two friends–leading to tragic consequences that will ultimately separate them forever.
The film, which had a very limited theatrical release, was a critical success, ending up on a number of top ten lists and earning an Oscar nod for its screenplay. It was 19-year-old Kate Winslet’s first appearance on the big screen and Melanie Lynskey, a 16-year-old hither-to unknown with no professional acting experience, is absolutely a force majeur here. It’s a shame her career didn’t develop as well as Winslet’s has.
PJ and Fran did extensive research into the background of the story, talking with many of the girls’ former classmates in Christchurch, along with neighbors, family friends, law enforcement and medical professionals. They also studied Pauline’s diary, which gave them great insight into the two girls and their relationships. In the film, Pauline’s voiceovers as read by Lynskey are from the actual diary entries.
We’ve been reading a lot about Weta Workshop and TH films, and it was Heavenly Creatures that led to the formation of Weta Digital. Those imaginative fantasy sequences foreshadow what Sir Peter would go on to do with LOTR and now, TH.
In an interesting sidenote, it was revealed that bestselling mystery author Anne Perry, creator of the Victorian mystery series with Thomas Pitt and Inspector Monk and a longtime favorite of mine, is the former Juliet Hulme. Perry has lived quietly in Scotland for a number of years, caring for her elderly mother.
Heavenly Creatures, at times disturbing and always memorable, gives us a generous taste of the evolving cinematic skill of Peter Jackson. With an intelligent script, strong performances and imaginative direction, it’s an outstanding film and definitely a “different kind of movie.” Highly recommended.
The theatrical release, rated R, runs 99 minutes and director’s cut, 109 minutes and it’s available on DVD, Blu-Ray and in digitally remastered Blu-Ray as well as Amazon Instant Video (for those lucky enough to have a decent high-speed connection). I’m sure you can also get it through Netflix.