Heavenly Creatures (1994, Peter Jackson)
As delightful a film as it frequently is, Heavenly Creatures is of course a document of multiple tragedies. The major one, clearly, is the senseless murder of an innocent woman, furthered because it’s committed by a pair of children whose lives will thus be altered permanently. The sickening violence of the pivotal moment is graphically, horrifically presented in sharp contrast to the playful gore of director Peter Jackson’s earlier Dead Alive. There’s much in this film that’s cute, endearing, sweet, but the absolute mortifying terror here is undiluted, as well it should be — it isn’t ironic or coy or glorified, it’s a deadening and despairing moment of closely documented human misery, which is just what the event warrants.
Jackson had been a promising young director of films that invariably became cult favorites, and then with this film he demonstrated a creative energy and intelligence that suggested he could be a luminary for long years to come. His cinematic ideas owe something to Terry Gilliam — lots of wide-angle lenses and swooping around — but in his morbid humor and love of the grotesque fused, in this case, with genuine compassion, he seems a true original. At bottom, Creatures is about adolescence — its secret worlds, first loves, vices and miseries — and thanks to the two brilliant lead actresses, Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, and a perceptive script, it’s as absorbing as though you were living in it, consumed within its drab grayish universe and its hint of dreamlike surrealism.
The murder case on which the film is based captured the public imagination in New Zealand in 1954 the same way that the James Bulger killing would in Liverpool many decades later. Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were close friends — lovers, by some accounts, including the film’s — and when an attempt was made to separate them due to the supposedly obsessive nature of their relationship, they murdered Parker’s mother together. It’s difficult for us to say how accurate the film is about the events it reenacts, but it certainly feels real, especially emotionally, which is a considerable achievement. Part of its thesis is that Honorah Parker was not the only victim in this story.
The second tragedy of Heavenly Creatures may or may not rely on a leap of dramatic faith. The controversy over the depiction of Pauline (Lynskey) and Juliet (Winslet) as being gay or bisexual and having a sexual encounter — very tastefully, believably presented in, frankly, one of the most beautiful sequences Jackson has directed, derived strongly from Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which it both explicity and implicitly references — focuses less on its presence in the film and more on the insistence by Hulme (who is now known as Anne Perry and is a bestselling author) that she and Parker were never infatuated with one another sexually. Nevertheless, the nature of the pair’s romance as both an outgrowth of their deep, complex friendship and as a sign of their development out of the sterile world of Catholic school life is integral to the story Jackson is telling, and is the source of his crucial balancing act.
Making the assumption, as the film does, that these were simply two young people forced to conceal and feel shame for their feelings, one doesn’t forgive their actions but one’s heart does, in some small way, go out to them. It’s a smaller matter than the cold-blooded murder that bookends the film, but it’s perhaps equally consequential: the misery of growing up in a time when one’s sexuality stood a good chance of being looked upon as a mental disorder. The time we spend with Juliet and Pauline is sweet, rollicking, and not at all sinister until they close ranks and begin to seek ways to continue to see one another, to fight back against the dispassionate structured world — parents, doctors, some well-meaning — that wants them apart. Their irrational act may indeed be one less of hate than of love, just grossly misplaced love, a naive and very specifically adolescent error of faith and judgment — an act of evil, in the film’s context, performed by people who are not evil. Their lashing out is against a world in which there is no understanding, even from those who should understand most.
The film walks an extraordinary tightrope almost flawlessly by presenting the two characters entirely sympathetically without condoning or glorifying their crime, the futility of which is further maddening — it didn’t even give them an extra moment together. Again, we don’t know for sure if the death of Mrs. Parker was simply a morbid Romeo & Juliet attempt to remain with a love against the protests of a whole known world, but in the film, it’s a poignant setting for a stirring, deeply troubling emotional arc — one that haunts long after the film fades. Lynskey and Winslet, both in their debut feature, are absolutely magical, crafting the most compelling and towering of secret universes with Jackson’s florid but unobtrusive help. We see the world, real and imagined, from their eyes and so we are in their corner against the weirdness and tragedy of everything swirling around them — cruelty, neglect, humorlessness — and the wonder and largeness of what they create together. Winslet has such fire in her eyes here, and Lynskey expertly portrays a meek and withdrawn curiosity. Pauline discovers herself through Juliet, but neither is intrinsically over the top, obsessive, or dangerous in any meaningful way. That makes it scarier. (It’s significant that as adults, both women have reported being horrified and guilt-ridden by the murder; it’s impossible for me to say for certain how credible that is, but my impulse is honestly to believe them.)
Lastly, the smallest tragedy in revisiting this extraordinary, engrossing film for the first time in a little under a decade is tiny compared to the second, microscopic compared to the first, but the one that messed me up most unexpectedly. Peter Jackson is capable of work this major and imaginative — much as he can’t quite rein in his attraction to the silly and mawkish — and look at how he’s spent the rest of his career so far. I know it’s not fair and makes me sound like a stuffy elitist or something, but it hurts. You’ll see what I mean when you see this, or see it again. You just wonder where on earth it came from.