Heavenly Creatures already seemed like something of an anomaly when it was released in 1994 and it seems even more incongruous when you consider where Peter Jackson's career has taken him since then. Jackson was known at that point for his proudly tasteless and outrageous comic horrors Braindead, Meet the Feebles and Bad Taste. For his fourth feature, Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh took on the notorious murder of Honora Rieper in 1954 by her daughter and her daughter's closest friend, and the constraints of real events forced him to curb his more outrageous impulses. There is a fantastical element to Heavenly Creatures, but unlike Jackson's later The Lovely Bones – in which the ill-judged afterlife sequences swamped the real life portion of his narrative – this aspect of the film feels organic and necessary, and a glimpse into the minds of two very unusual teenage girls.
Our first sight of them is startling. Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) run through the woods, screaming hysterically. They run towards the camera and we can see their faces and clothes are covered with blood; "It's mummy," Pauline cries, "she's terribly hurt!" From this opening, Jackson takes us back a year, to show us how these girls first met and began the intense friendship that would end in bloodshed. When we are introduced to her, Pauline is an introverted and unwelcoming presence, with her arms crossed and a permanent scowl on her face. If she does speak, she only mutters quietly before withdrawing to her own private thoughts.
Compare her demeanour with that of Juliet, an English girl who suddenly arrives in Christchurch and lights up Pauline's world. She walks into the classroom with a brash arrogance and superiority – head held high, chest out. The pair are thrust together in an art class, when Juliet's anti-authoritarian stance strikes a chord with Pauline, and from that point they are inseparable. They bond over their shared love for scars, Mario Lanza, clay figures and their shared distaste for Orson Welles ("The most hideous man alive") and Jackson draws us into this relationship, allowing us to share in the imagined world that they frequently escape into. The lively confidence of Winslet melds beautifully with Lynskey's dark conviction, and together they superbly express the overwhelming, intoxicating need that they have for each other. Lynskey's perfectly pitched reading of the real Pauline's diary entries and letters also acts as a valuable insight into her character's fractured and tumultuous emotional state.
There are elements of Jackson's schlocky past on display here. He uses weird angles and tight close-ups on authority figures – priests, nurses, teachers – as they loom over the girls, but the effect sits well with the central characters' skewed perspective on the world. His judgement of tone is impressive throughout, daringly mixing scenes of darkness and light, and finding imaginative ways to render potentially troublesome moments, such as Pauline's first sexual experience. The film feels vibrant and fresh in a way that few of Jackson's more heavy-handed pictures have since, with the images blooming into rich life during the fantasy sequences. Jackson can be guilty of letting some scenes run a little long, but the film is always fascinating to watch.
It's also deeply disturbing, and when I re-watched Heavenly Creatures recently I was struck by how horrible the murder of Pauline's mother is – not just the act itself, but the long build-up to it. Lynskey's delivery of the line, "treat yourself" is chilling, and the long walk that precedes the murder is an agonising one. We believe in what we are watching not only because it is so closely based on the real event, but because we have come to believe so completely in the twisted love that has driven these two girls to this point of no return. Heavenly Creatures remains a true one-off in Jackson's filmography; a film in which rich imagination and raw emotion combine to unforgettable effect. Will he ever reach these heights again? We can only hope, but the world of CGI appears to have swallowed this once iconoclastic filmmaker whole.
No extras were provided on the disc for review. The final version will contain a retrospective documentary.
Heavenly Creatures will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by Peccadillo Pictures on September 12th.
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