It remains one of the most notorious crimes in New Zealand's history: On June 22, 1954, during an afternoon stroll in a Christchurch park, 15-year-old Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker bashed Pauline's mum's head in with a brick. It shocked the world, not only because of the tender age of the murderers, but also because of the extreme nature of the act. According to a police report, the victim had been attacked "with an animal ferocity seldom seen even in the most brutal murders." New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson, whose first three films had been grotesque comedies (Dead Alive, Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles), became interested in the case because of his wife's fascination with it; a year of research including interviews with those involved, plus the girl's diaries and court transcripts resulted in a script for Heavenly Creatures (1994), which is a tad over-the-top, at times surreal, and refuses to paint the two girls as fiends. Despite his gore-drenched past, Jackson's take on the story is uniquely comic without doing disrespect to its tragic aspects, resulting in a funny, horrifying, and deeply moving film about two very disturbed young people who feed each others' psychoses. Jackson has called his film "a murder story about love, a murder story with no villains" it's a compelling examination of passion and delusion, leading inexorably to violence. Sullen, pudding-faced Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) begins to blossom when she's befriended by an exuberant English girl named Juliet (Kate Winslet), new to their repressive girl's school. Smart, smug, and charismatic, Juliet is drawn to Pauline because of all that they have in common both were victims of lengthy childhood illnesses which have left them less than robust, both are interested in becoming writers, and both are social outsiders. "We have such extraordinary telepathy," Pauline says of her new friend. "We are both stark raving mad." They discover a mutual love of Mario Lanza and James Mason, and gradually wrap themselves up in their own private fantasy world, a mythical kingdom called Borovnia. Giving each other fictional names, they share fantasies of chivalry, sexual misadventures, and murder as their romantic friendship develops into obsessive intensity. When Juliet's divorcing parents declare that they're shipping her off to a relative in South Africa, the two girls implore Pauline's mother to allow them to go together. Uncomfortable with their relationship, Pauline's mother says no, unaware of the lengths the girls will go to in order to stay together.
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Having become the Kiwi master of schlock cinema through his previous films, Jackson's deft, magical hand with Heavenly Creatures came as a shock to his cult audience. The film achieves a delicate balance, presenting the girls' love story as sympathetic while maintaining a constant state of tension they are, after all, quite mad, and from the beginning of the film we know where their mutual obsession is heading. But as we watch the events slowly unfold with growing horror, Jackson pulls the viewer into the girls' magical, alternate world through special effects and voiceovers taken from Pauline's diaries. We experience their fantasies/delusions along with them, which makes their fantasy world understandable, as well as the reasons why it's so much more appealing than their bleak reality. Lynskey and Blanchett give performances that may at first seem overly enthusiastic and without much subtlety, but they're servicing a film that's as much a horrible fairy tale as it is a true-crime story and they're playing young teens, to boot, with all the emotional excesses that territory demands. Winslet makes Pauline's attraction to Juliet perfectly understandable; she's wicked, emotionally vulnerable, and drop-dead gorgeous, along with being something of a lunatic. As Pauline, Lynskey is alternately pathetic, lovestruck, disagreeable, and triumphant it's an amazing portrayal of adolescent angst, and when she glowers from beneath hooded brows, there's no doubt what dark thoughts she's thinking.
Miramax's DVD release of Heavenly Creatures offers a very good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. It's not a perfectly pristine source-print, and some scenes seem less crisp than others, but overall it's been well cared for. At 109 minutes, this is the same version that was originally released in New Zealand; the previously available North American version was about ten minutes shorter. Some trivial scenes have been extended, the 1950's documentary on Christchurch that begins the film is considerably expanded, and we get a lot more of Juliet and Pauline's relationship, including a longer version of them running through the woods singing "Donkey Seranade" in their underwear. Several of the restored scenes may have been cut for ratings reasons a man in the hospital tuberculosis ward coughs up blood into a basin, and there are a few very gory (and very funny) fantasies that the girls have about other people being impaled or dying horribly, as well as one last bloody scene at the end of the film concerning Juliet. Keep-case.