Christchurch, New Zealand, the mid-1950s. Two girls, Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) run terrified through the dense forest, the air streaked with their screams and their faces streaked with blood. They burst through the bushes and emerge to the concerned face of a passer-by with the words “It’s Mummy! She’s terribly hurt!”So begins Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, the true story of two schoolgirls whose problematic home lives forge a bridge between them, a bridge that leads to a fantasy world of princes and princesses, giant butterflies, murder, topiary and unicorns. But when their parents strive to separate the two, the girls hatch a plan to remain together by taking drastic actions.
Based on the actual diary entries of Pauline, a shy, dowdy, socially outcast girl whose face is almost permanently set into a bitter scowl, the relationship between the two girls for the most part feels very real and natural. Juliet is everything Pauline has ever wanted to be; well-travelled, stylish, intelligent, confident, wealthy, and distant from her parents. It is clear from the moment the two are paired up in an art class at school, and then again in sport – where neither of them are able to take part due to scarred legs or lungs – that the two will become firm friends. The fact that both young actresses – Lynskey was 17, Winslet 19 on the film’s release – were both making their debut motion picture performances is incredible, as both seem effortlessly submerged within their roles.
The film is very much shot from a child’s perspective, with all of the adult characters being exaggerated slightly beyond believable, especially in the cases of the overly strict and waspish teachers, and the creepy, almost perverse priest who attends to Juliet during a hospital visit. The film never questions the girls’ childish logic – or lack thereof – in their plans, and why should it? For this is their story through and through.
The fantasy sequences, in which Pauline and Juliet immerse themselves within the world of royalty, amidst the models of the characters they’ve created for the novel they are writing, today look a little tacky, especially the transformations of the real world to the fantastical, which with today’s modern technology could be easily replicated with the most basic software. However twenty years ago they would have appeared wonderful, and they add to the quirky, childish feel. It was incredibly annoying, however, whenever they voiced aloud the name of their lead character, Deborah, which they said as though it rhymed with fedora, not zebra. It’s like somebody saying Penelope, but rhyming it with antelope. Infuriating.
The relationship between the girls doesn’t take too long to heighten beyond what their parents consider decent, which leads me into a little censorship rant. I’ve watched this film before, via the BBC iPlayer when I missed it’s showing on TV, however certain scenes, in which the girls kssed each other and pretended to make love as the characters in their novel, were cut from that version, so I had no idea that the relationship their parents were concerned about actually existed. All I’d been shown was the girls occasionally sharing a bath, and at one point stripping down to their underwear and singing as they ran through the woods. This completely changed the tone of the film, from what was previously parents being over-protective and making insinuations of something that wasn’t there into a genuine reason for concern (not that I’m saying a lesbian relationship is any cause for the concern, but back in the 50s it might have been considered such). Cutting scenes from films infuriates me beyond belief! I watched Jurassic Park on a Saturday afternoon recently, and (spoiler) they cut before Gennaro got eaten off the toilet! That’s the best part of the film! I loved that scene as a child. It’s not like you see the T-Rex bite through his head, or his guts spilling out everywhere. And later you’re shown that he’s been killed, so what’s the difference? Children should learn that dinosaurs are dangerous, and sitting on a toilet in a flimsy shack will not provide one with adequate protection from them.
Anyway, rant over. There were some possibly unintentionally hilarious scenes in the film, primarily being the doctor who announces the girls homosexual tendencies as a mental disorder, but tells Pauline’s mother (Sarah Peirse) not to worry, because there could be a medical breakthrough at any time. I also loved Juliet’s father (Clive Merrison) trying to voice his thoughts on the matter to Pauline’s parents, using such phrases as “unwholesome attachment” and “intensity of friendship” because he can’t quite bring himself to say that his daughter might be gay.
This is something of a departure for Peter Jackson, whose previous films were more schlocky and grotesque, though Heavenly Creatures does have a couple of moments. Jackson also got a chance to showcase his love of the New Zealand landscapes that he’d later go on to repeat with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Whilst the film isn’t groundbreaking in terms of the subject matter of delivery, it’s interesting to see two young actresses and a relatively in-experienced director who would all go on to bigger and better things. Plus, there’s a scene where Pauline’s Dad (Simon O’Connor) mimes opera into a fish.
Choose film 7/10