The story of Pauline and Juliet as told in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures is one of whimsy and fantasy, of schoolgirl infatuation, and of complicated family relationships that ultimately takes a dark, violent and almost sudden turn toward the macabre. While it feels like an abrupt and out-of-character development, Jackson manages to both prepare you for it and leave you nevertheless surprised, drawing us in from the opening scene and creating something infinitely compelling out of what amounts, in the first 90 minutes of a 99 minute film, to little more than a intense friendship between two girls.
The story behind Heavenly Creatures is all the more fascinating because it’s based closely on true events.
The story concerns a New Zealand schoolgirl, Pauline (Melanie Lynskey). Pauline is quiet, timid, and a little overweight. Her life is changed dramatically when Juliet and her wealthy parents move to town. Juliet and Pauline strike an immediate and intense friendship, bonding over their shared interest of art, of the opera, and of movie stars. There is something a little uncomfortable about their relationship, however, especially for 14-year-old girls in the 1950s. They show affection a bit too readily, and their infatuation with one another is such that, when forcibly separated, they become inconsolable. Juliet, moreover, is stricken with a case of tuberculosis and, while recuperating, through letters and a shared sense of romanticism over Juliet’s illness, the two form an even stronger, almost unbreakable bond.
That relationship becomes complicated when Juliet’s parents divorce. It means, for Juliet, that she will have to relocate to South Africa, an unimaginable separation for both Pauline and Juliet. The two thus conspire to a last, deadly resort. For those of you unfamiliar with the true account of Pauline and Juliet, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you entirely. But if you are curious, a good place to start is the Wikipedia page of mystery novelist Anne Perry. It’s a gripping story, and I doubt that pre-existing knowledge of it would take much, if anything, away from the film.
That’s because Heavenly Creatures, as the saying goes, is more about the journey than the destination, even if that shocking destination culminates in blood (depicted in the film’s opening scene). Heavenly Creatures also represents Peter Jackson at his best, in that brief but wonderful period in his career that also includes Dead Alive and The Frighteners when Jackson had only his massive talent with which to work, before that was waylaid by a giant ego and millions and millions of dollars of other people’s money. Undoubtedly Jackson is a brilliant director, and his latest,Lovely Bones, could have been as equally compelling, fantastic, and dark as Heavenly Creatures had Jackson’s need to show off not gotten in the way.
It helps that Heavenly Creatures is such a small, intimate story populated with few characters and little in the way of actual developments leading up to the film’s tragic denouement. Jackson, who co-wrote the script with Fran Walsh, borrowing heavily from Pauline’s diary, seamlessly fills those gaps with vibrant, lush and eye-popping fantasy sequences. More importantly, Jackson decides to focus not on the crime committed at the end of the film, but on the friendship that drives Pauline and Juliet to commit such an act, regarded as one of the most evil, despicable and callous crimes of the era. Thanks to Jackson’s ability to develop those characters, as well as their friendship, we understand their motivation, even if we cannot quite sympathize. It’s shocking, but not exactly appalling.
The performances, too, are remarkable, especially that of Kate Winslet, in her first major film role. Nineteen at the time, Winslet brilliantly brings her 14-year-old character to believable life, even if her face doesn’t quite look the age. Melanie Lynskey, plucked from obscurity, also does an exceptional job of selling that almost out-of-control midway point between obsession and creepiness (Weird Fact: Lynskey also had a recurring character in “Two and a Half Men” named Pauline Parker). The rest of the cast suitably fits Jackson’s magical realist world, a world where Orson Welles is not just the devil, but a devil that roams the streets, and a devil with whom the teenage girls wants to sleep.
But it is commanding force of Jackson that turns this dark tale into a dazzling and spirited tragedy. He creates a movie that is both compelling and haunting, long before you understand what is haunting about it. The eeriness simply glides between the schoolgirl giggles, and there is something unshakably sinister in their echoes. It’s a chilling and unforgettable film, a much-needed reminder that, after 15 years of huge, sometimes bloated epics, Heavenly Creatures is the movie that rightfully earned Peter Jackson the right to make them.