Day 16: Heavenly Creatures

"I'm not going to heaven. I'm going to the fourth world. It's like heaven, only better because there aren't any Christians."

Peter Jackson is one of the luckiest directors that ever lived. He started out the 90's making small exploitation movies in New Zealand like Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles, and ended the decade filming The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the success of which would send him skyrocketing to the top of Hollywood's A-list. In between this though he made what I feel to be his two best films, 1996's The Frighteners (a wonderful horror movie featuring a never better Michael J. Fox) and 1994's Heavenly Creatures.

Heavenly Creatures is based on a true story of two teenagers in Christchurch, NZ who murdered one of their mothers. The filmmakers used the actual diary entries of one of the girls to piece together the story, much as the police did when prosecuting the crime. Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) is a bit of an outcast at her all girls school in 1952 when a transfer student from England arrives. Her name is Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) and she is a free spirit who connects with the shy and reserved Pauline right away.

They have several mutual interests, namely fantasy and romance novels and begin writing a romance novel together set in a mythical land. As they continue creating the world of the novel, their fantasies begin to come to life and they find their time spent in this fantasy realm to be more rewarding than the more banal world they actually live in. They even begin referring to themselves as characters from their novel. Juliet becomes Deborah (pronounced De-bore-ah) and Pauline becomes Gina. Juliet creates clay figures of the characters who later take shape as life-sized clay people in their fantasy world.

Pauline begins romanticizing Juliet's home life and thinks that because Juliet's parents are rich and disconnected, that they're actually more loving than her own parents. Both sets of parents are painted with a fairly broad brush and it is easy to dislike them at first for their overbearing ways or their non-existent parenting respectively. But as the girls' fantasy world begins to take hold and they lose almost all touch with reality, the parents become sympathetic characters almost by default.

Juliet's parents end up divorcing and Juliet is going to be shipped to South Africa as her parents hope the warm climate will help her tuberculosis. This sends both girls into a mad tizzy as it will drive them apart forever in their minds, so Pauline hatches a plan to murder her mother so that Juliet's parents will adopt her and they can all live together. It's a half-assed plan at best and just the sort of thing that two delusional teenage girls would hatch. Needless to say, they succeed in carrying out their plan; The murder is brutally violent and harshly realistic in contrast to the rest of the violence in the film which has been part of their fantasies and has been presented as non-realistically as possible. Text after the film informs us that the girls were tried for murder and sent to separate prisons for five years and released on the condition that they never see one another again.
The film has its flaws to be sure, but it is an incredibly effective portrait of what the lives of two girls consumed with fantasy would actually be like. This is a bit diversionary but stick with me here. I remember seeing Babel and being particularly engrossed in the segments of the film involving the maid and her nephew.

Afterwords I realized that this was because it was the director working with actors, characters and subject matter he was extremely comfortable with and it made the rest of the film suffer in contrast. I felt the same way here as the film would drag whenever it would deal with the more drab and mundane aspects of the girls' lives, but it would come alive in their fantasy sequences. This was obviously done intentionally for stylistic reasons, but it also shows Jackson's flaws as a director. He flounders when not dealing in fantastical scenarios and he treats those scenes with an orgasmic glee that it forces the rest of the film to drag.

The performances by both girls are extremely effective and it's easy to see why they both became great actresses with incredibly diverse and long careers. Kate Winslet in particular is amazingly good, but Melanie Lynskey is no slouch. She's obviously given the less showy role, but she is extremely good even in scenes without Winslet. I guess I'm trying to say that she's definitely not Peter Scolari to Winslet's Tom Hanks. These are both fantastic actresses and they've been that way since the very beginning of their careers.

The only other lingering issue I have is the girls' sexuality. There is a definite suspicion on the part of their parents that the girls are romantically involved with one another. The film doesn't openly show this as a reality until their last night together. What's odd about all this, I guess, is that when the parents suspicion is first raised, it's very clear that they're just extremely close to one another and are likely not involved romantically, but when they later end up consummating their relationship, it just sort of drops the scene into the film and doesn't make any attempt to use it as a reason or resolution for their relationship. It's almost wholly superfluous. I'm not sure how intentional this was, but I would like to know what the reason for including the scene was when we're made to feel earlier that the parents were being unreasonably paranoid.

Either way, it's a very good film that I highly recommend. I think it has aged extremely well compared with a lot of films from the early 90s and will likely hold up for years to come. What did everyone else think? Let me know in the comments section below!

I haven't decided on tomorrow's film yet, but it will be fairly mainstream as I've done a few obscure ones in a row now.

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