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Heavenly Creatures

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/29/07 22:42:01

"Peter Jackson's masterpiece."
5 stars (Awesome)

After a few gory items well-loved by the relative few who saw them, Peter Jackson decided to tackle more mature material. Except he didn't. 'Heavenly Creatures' is a quantum leap in substance from gleefully sick flicks like 'Meet the Feebles' and 'Dead Alive,' but it retains Jackson's restless devotion to the delirium of fantasy.

After a diabolically goofy prologue a heartily square travelogue of 1950s Christchurch, New Zealand we're thrown rudely into bloody chaos: Two girls, Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet), running and shrieking, smeared and spattered with gore. We don't know them yet, and we don't know where the blood came from (though Pauline says "Mummy's terribly hurt"), but we sure are intrigued. The rest of Heavenly Creatures explains how the girls got to that state.

Pauline, a defiantly frumpy girl (played by Lynskey with uncompromising unpleasantness that still manages to be likable), lives with her parents in a clean but cramped house, where boarders sometimes rent a room. The glamorous Juliet arrives from England, instantly antagonizing her new French teacher by correcting the old lady's grammar. Pauline, who's in the same class, is impressed. Soon the girls, sitting out gym class, bond over their illnesses "All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It's all frightfully romantic," gushes Juliet with the sort of passion only Kate Winslet seems able to access. These two were goth and emo before there were goth and emo, and in due time they construct an elaborate fantasy world drawing on standard mythic templates as well as pop culture of the day (Mario Lanza, Orson Welles, etc.). They're escaping their families Pauline's forbidding drudge of a mother, Juliet's intellectual but cold mother and father and hurtling toward a place that gives them the status and sense of belonging they crave.

Jackson is always chasing after the girls with his camera as they sprint along the landscape of New Zealand, morphing in and out of the land they call Borovnia. Heavenly Creatures has been called a lesbian film, but even though the girls do kiss and snuggle while acting out the fantasy narrative, they go way beyond sexuality into pathology. Of course, back in the '50s, homosexuality was pathology (the massive close-up of a doctor sibilantly enunciating the word homo-ssseck-shuality is good for a laugh), and the girls' parents Pauline's working-class family and Juliet's far more cosmopolitan parents decide the girls have been spending far too much time together. Which, undeniably, they have. Jackson acknowledges that the girls' feverish fantasy life, while rich and satisfying to them, is also leading them down a path from which there is no sane return.

Heavenly Creatures acquires emotional heft partly because of Sarah Peirse's honest performance as Pauline's unsophisticated but hardworking mother. Pauline despises her and is mortified by her very existence, but Jackson paints the mother as a frightened woman who made a lot of mistakes as a girl and possibly sees Pauline unconsciously following in her footsteps. The final reel, in which Pauline encourages her mom to have another piece of cake before their fateful walk in the woods, is exquisitely sad. The girls have been driven to the point where their actions, meant to unite them forever, will do quite the opposite. As the moment of truth approaches, Lynskey and Winslet perform a duet of regret the awful weight of what the girls are about to do settles rock-like in their stomachs.

On one level, Heavenly Creatures is a stellar true-crime story, which Jackson probably grew up hearing about. The movie also outed Juliet, who'd changed her name to Anne Perry and written a series of popular mystery novels; Pauline now goes by Hilary Nathan. As per court order, they haven't seen each other since 1954. The movie, upon repeat viewings, only becomes more poignant with that knowledge.

I truly don't think Jackson's filmmaking has gotten better since 'Heavenly Creatures' just bigger. Here, at age 32, he nailed a difficult tonal mix of exultation and anguish he hasn't approached since, though his forthcoming adaptation of 'The Lovely Bones' may restore the old magic. The inner tension of the film emerges from Jackson's enjoyment of the girls' bustling insanity and then his gradual withdrawal from it turning out the lights, one by one, in the kingdom of delusion.

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