Film/DVD: review

Heavenly Creatures

Heavenly Creatures
Directed & Co-Written by Peter Jackson
 
1994, New Zealand — 109 minutes, color, 2.35 aspect ratio — Drama

Beautiful and stunning true story of two New Zealand teenage girls who fall madly in love in the stiffling 1950s.

Review

Peter Jackson (born 1961) is best known as the writer/director of the most acclaimed fantasy/adventure saga in decades, The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), but he also created some exceptional earlier works. Although Jackson is not GLBT-identified, his Heavenly Creatures (1994) is one of the most profoundly moving, and popular, films about a lesbian relationship. It tells the true story of two teenage New Zealand girls (one of whom grew up to become bestselling mystery writer Anne Perry) who fell passionately in love in the starched-shirt city of Christchurch in the mid-1950s. Unfortunately, this is a place where even a doctor can only whisper the word "ho-mo-sex-u-al" through clenched teeth (in a tight close-up, of course). As their desperation grows, what they believe to be their only way out forces them to commit a shattering act of violence.

The film's enormous power comes from how Jackson and co-screenwriter Frances Walsh depict so many layers of the tender yet all-consuming love of rich Juliet Hulme (debut of Kate Winslet, later in Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, and Iris) and working class Pauline "Paul" Rieper (debut of Melanie Lynskey, later in But I'm a Cheerleader and Sweet Home Alabama). The film is by no means a simple thriller or romance or coming of age story, but all three and much more. It moves effortlessly from heartstopping suspense to extraordinary visual lyricism to a profound, yet sometimes very funny, story of two young people coming to understand who they are and what they need.

Jackson is ingenious at balancing so many disparate elements. He depicts a realistic 1950s milieu, stretching from the upper crust professional world of the Hulmes to the Riepers seedy boarding house, with countless details which feel authentic. And Jackson brings the film to another level by showing us, stage by stage, how Juliet and Pauline first dream up their alternate reality ("The Fourth World") - using voice over narration taken from the actual journals and letters - and then, thanks to some good early digital effects, come increasingly to live in their fairy tale kingdom. As their love deepens, and their families try ever harder to break them part, we are moved - perhaps even to tears - by their need for that special, albeit illusory, place where they can share love and adventure. Yet Jackson, who begins the film with the bloody aftermath of the climactic murder, never lets us forget that these two girls are ultimately willing to kill for their fantasy.

On this latest viewing, I was especially struck by how Jackson uses camera movement to convey a wide range of moods. This is a very kinetic film, which immediately establishes a rich counterpoint between camera movement and movement of the actors. Visualizing the film's theme, it simultaneously creates an effect of boundlessness (the camera can go anywhere) and limits (but the people can not). A perfect example is the mesmerizing "Donkey Serenade" sequence, when Pauline first visits Juliet at her palatial home. Also notice how Jackson alternately cuts with and, powerfully, against Mario Lanza singing the silly ditty as the girls explore the boundaries of their world, from home to school.

Why does Heavenly Creatures not feel like just another work about "doomed GLBT characters," which were so prevalent until just a decade or so ago? Perhaps it is because Jackson exposes the tangled strands of homophobia in Christchurch society, from religion to medicine, and how it operates in various social strata. He does this with a mordant sense of humor, and a great deal of compassion. Also, we never see Juliet and Pauline question their love for each other; there is not a jot of self-loathing in these young women. Their anger is directed at the society, in its many forms, which wants to deny them expression of their love.

Because Jackson and his collaborators have created a work of such richness and complexity, we can feel all of the pathos of this line from one of Pauline's poems, "'Tis indeed a miracle, one must feel,/ That two such heavenly creatures are real."

The Miramax DVD's excellent widescreen (2.35 aspect ratio) transfer contains no extra features, but it does present the complete 109 minute version of the film - 10 minutes longer than the U.S. theatrical release - which substantially fleshes out Juliet and Pauline's parents.

Click here to download the complete original screenplay to Heavenly Creatures, which includes an extensive interview with Peter Jackson and Frances Walsh.

Reviewed February 1, 2002

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