Heavenly Creatures (New Zealand, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It's all frightfully romantic."
- Juliet Hulme, Heavenly Creatures

Heavenly Creatures is based on the true story of Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) set in Christchurch, New Zeland from 1952 to 1954. These two teenagers (Pauline was 15 in 1954; Juliet was 17) formed an intense and, some argued, unhealthy friendship. They were inseparable, and when a case of tuberculosis forced Juliet into quarantine, they wrote voluminous letters to each other, both as themselves and as fantasy characters they created. Eventually, their parents became concerned about the nature of this friendship (homosexuality being regarded as a very negative "condition" during the '50s), and attempted to prevent Pauline and Juliet from seeing each other. The tragic ramifications of this action, as described in the real Pauline's journal, are related in Peter Jackson's original motion picture.

When released earlier this year in New Zeland, Heavenly Creatures created a stir, re-awakening interest in the long-buried story. Journalists, hungry to capitalize on the Rieper/Hulme case, went in search for either of the two women. While Pauline was never located, Juliet was discovered to be prospering in Scotland as a bestselling murder mystery author using the pen name of Anne Perry. Considering the events chronicled in Heavenly Creatures, this makes a bizarre and ironically appropriate postscript.

This uniquely powerful film accrues much of its momentum through character interaction. Pauline and Juliet are so well-scripted and solidly portrayed that the viewer cannot help but be captivated by their relationship. While it is intentionally left ambiguous whether either of these girls is a lesbian (one sexual encounter does not define a lifestyle), no such uncertainty accompanies the exploration of how hopelessly tangled their lives and emotional well-being have become.

Fantasy plays a crucial role in Heavenly Creatures. It's up to the individual viewer to decide how psychotic Pauline and Juliet are (they share visions of the "4th World", a "heaven without Christians" inhabited by clay people, where the tunes Mario Lanza perpetually fill the air). Certainly, these two are more at home living in a world apart from our own, where romance and happiness reign.

33-year old Peter Jackson, whose films include Bad Taste and Braindead, has brought an unusually comic and colorful perspective to what one might naturally assume to be a painful tale. With the influence of Monty Python's Flying Circus very much in evidence, Jackson moulds the fantasy world into a place of richly-constructed images where the boundless creativity of his characters can find its release. The levity of this place also represents a stark contrast to the shocking sequence that both opens and closes the film.

Melanie Lynskey (appearing in her first film) and Kate Winslet (also a relatively new face) are convincing as the two friends, and the chemistry between them carries Heavenly Creatures during some of its slower moments. The supporting cast, which includes Diana Kent as Pauline's mother, Sarah Peirse as Juliet's mother, and Clive Merrison and Simon O'Connor, is excellent.

It's said that every person's closet contains at least one skeleton, and this is certainly true in the case of Anne Perry. As a dysfunctional family tale, the disturbing Heavenly Creatures offers no facile answers as to what might have been done differently to prevent circumstances from degenerating as they did. Revealed in unforgettable fashion by a capable director, the events that unfold in this film are not easily forgotten.

Heavenly Creatures (New Zealand, 1994)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Sexual Situations, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1