Oscar Movies: Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Every once in a while a film appears that is so audacious in its narrative, so startling in its visual style, so emotionally disturbing, that one gets excited again over the possibilities of the film medium to tell interesting stories in a radically new way. This was my initial reaction after seeing Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, the astounding film from New Zealand, at the Toronto Film Festival.

Winning the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto Festival’s Metro Award, Heavenly Creatures is likely to generate a heated debate about the nature of friendship–and how easily it can be misconstrued. Along with Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (the best American film this year), Heavenly Creatures should qualify as one of l994’s most singular cinematic achievements.

Set in l954, the movie is based on the true story of two bright teen-age girls from opposite poles of the social spectrum. A product of a poor, uneducated family, Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynsky) is a shy, insecure girl, who’s literally snapped out of her shell by the arrival at school of Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), a flamboyant, self-assured English girl whose neglectful parents are self-absorbed careerists.

As an account of true events leading to a brutal murder, the film is neither a thriller nor a docudrama of a tabloid crime. Instead, Jackson, assisted by co-writer Frances Walsh, takes us deep into the psyches of two lonely, eccentric girls whose friendship goes beyond normal affection into obsessive attachment-intense physical and psychological passion.

Their fantasies of a chivalrous never-neverland gradually consumes more and more of their lives. Jackson draws on his skill in puppetry and special effects to depict the mythical kingdom of Borovnia, a fantasy world in which the girls vividly envision sexual escapades and violent acts of revenge against their mundane world.

As the two girls increasingly withdraw into their Arthurian kingdom, their concerned parents attempt to separate them–to disastrous results. Ultimately, reality and fantasy become so intimately linked that the unbalanced couple plot a hideous crime, for which they are convicted and sent to prison. At the end of the film, we learn that the two women, now in their 50s, were granted pardon after serving five years in jail, contingent that they never see each other again. They never did.

Heavenly Creatures is a breakthrough film for Jackson, who’s mostly known in the international festival circuit as a director of sci-fi and horror flicks (Bad Taste, Braindead, released here as Dead Alive) that achieved cult status internationally. Jackson is now working on new black comedy for Universal, The Frighteners, starring Michael J. Fox, with Bob Zemeckis as producer.

Jackson swoops and spins his restless camera, filling the soundtrack with opera–and songs by Mario Lanza, who represents a God-like romantic ideal. Dazzling direction, talented cast and almost flawless screenplay (based on Pauline’s diaries) make for a truly mesmerizing experience. Rarely does a film capture the subtle and ambiguous nuances of an unusual bond, whose lesbian dimensions are never acknowledged as such.

Heavenly Creatures is a rare film, one that is deeply disturbing and yet always exhilarating to watch.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Screenplay (Original): Frances Walsh and Peter Jackson

Oscar Context:

The winners were Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary for Pulp Fiction.