Peter Jackson was once the purveyor of some deliciously dark material. Shooting in his native New Zealand to bring the visually sublime Heavenly Creatures to Technicolor life, he chronicles the disturbing story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, two young teenage girls whose relationship is both frighteningly real and strangely surreal. If I am allowed a lazy comparison, I would describe Heavenly Creatures as a kind of feminist, Kiwi If….; more detailed parallels will be drawn later. Overall, despite the lack of restraint, the camp kitsch of the whole enterprise, and the feeling of repulsion induced by the two protagonists, Jackson’s film is admirable, compelling, thought-provoking and damn scary.
Before the scariness, it must be said, comes the humour. Peter Jackson and his spouse Fran Walsh have always had a keen sense of it, and while this was just visible in their Tolkienian endeavours, the devilish darkness of their depraved funny bones is more obvious in their earlier films; Heavenly Creatures is no exception. While treating its subjects with the utmost seriousness, there is much humour to be found in 17-year-old Kate Winslet’s performance as a precocious, unhinged teenager, or Pauline’s strange obsession with Orson Welles. The girls’ adulation of tenor Mario Lanza is more than just comedy: it’s a clever touch, and one of the ironies in which the film revels, as the Italian immigrant was a picture of both angelic innocence and rebellious insouciance, descriptions which fit Juliet and Pauline perfectly.
The film is full of ironies, ironies that were also true of the original murder case: the florid beauty of the depraved imaginary worlds of the two young teens; the setting of the terrible tragedy in Christchurch; the apparent perversion of the name “Juliet”, once synonymous with virginal innocence, here transmogrified into an eerily misguided evil. These ironies are not lost on the canny Jackson, who is fully aware of the scary inner dichotomy of the girls – they believe their crime to be in the name of righteousness. Not for nothing is “You’ll Never Walk Alone” played over the end credits.
As the first instance of the girls’ overripe imagination blossomed onto the screen, I was reminded of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 counterculture masterpiece If….. Also a film about a teenager with a deep contempt of authority, who ends up killing a detested figure of authority, it seems to be owed a significant debt by Jackson’s film – the surreal interludes, the strange sexual undertones, the idolatry of figures in popular culture, the build-up towards the ending. However, there are several key differences. While If…. is steeped in surrealism, blurring the lines between fiction, dreams and reality, the flights of fancy in Heavenly Creatures are purely functional, rather than atmospheric: they serve to underscore the fertile yet dangerous imaginations of the young girls. Although one may feel pity for the slaughtered Headmaster at If….’s denouement, we are firmly on the side of the students, against the repressive structure of the public school. Heavenly Creatures is far from countercultural: in the end we feel fury and contempt towards Juliet and Pauline. In Anderson’s film the massacre seems to be inevitable, while in Jackson’s (despite a revealingly bloody flashback at the beginning) there is always the element of Aristotelian tragedy – disaster can always be averted, but it strikes due to the blindness of the characters. The final scene is well-executed in both, but far more painful and disturbing in Heavenly Creatures, which features a truly masterful and perfect conclusion.
The film is by no means perfect. It could have done with a little more subtlety, especially in Winslet’s performance. Although she puts in a spirited and impressive performance, both she and Lynskey (the latter less so) begin to grate a little after a while. The ending benefits from not pulling any punches, but in places more restraint might have complemented rather than undermined the film. Nevertheless, Heavenly Creatures is masterful, colourful, and deeply frightening.