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No. 26: “Heavenly Creatures” (1994)

“We have decided how sad it is for others that they cannot appreciate our genius.”
~~Pauline Parker

The story of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, two New Zealand teens who killed Pauline’s mother with half a brick jammed in a stocking, is too strange not to be true. In “Heavenly Creatures,” Peter Jackson makes it stranger. He brings Borovnia, the elaborate fantasy realm created by unstable friends Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet), to alarming life with castles and expressionless, life-size claymation-like creatures. That these two worlds will smash into each other is inevitable; what’s surprising is the way “Heavenly Creatures” makes the collision feel just as shocking as the day it happened.

Jackson’s first few shots are designed to provide a portrait of hyperconservative 1950s Christchurch, then thrust us into the worst of the Parker-Hulme murder. “Heavenly Creatures” opens with idyllic scenes of Christchurch: wildflower-covered hills, whitewashed fences, quaint steeple-topped churches. This is a place where supper’s waiting on the table at 5, where words like “murder” are unthinkable. Abruptly the camera cuts to Pauline and Juliet, their faces covered with blood, screaming. With no context for their distress, Jackson sets a tone of profound unease. As “Heavenly Creatures” continues, the unease gives way to sheer horror as Pauline and Juliet’s obsession with each other grows. The two meet at school: Juliet, bright, pretty and self-confident enough to correct her French teacher’s grammar, is a new student. Pauline, played with spooky glowering intensity by Lysnkey, couldn’t be more different from her classmate. Shy and self-conscious about the scar on her leg caused by bone disease, Pauline exists in her own make-believe world. That makes her immensely attractive to Juliet, who wishes life could be a romance novel. “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s all frightfully romantic,” she insists. Listen carefully to how Winslet pitches her voice on this line; she sounds bubbly, but that cheer is tinged with mania, just enough to clue us in this friendship won’t be a beautiful one.

At first, Pauline and Juliet seem like a harmless enough pair, two dreamy teen girls swooning over tenor Mario Lanza and prattling on about Orson Welles. Then they are separated when Juliet has an attack of tuberculosis, and the friendship turns to what looks like romantic obsession. Soon they are so tangled up in each other’s lives that Juliet’s parents (Diana Kent, Simon O’Connor) and Pauline’s mother Honora (Sarah Pierse) start to wonder if … if what? In 1954 Christchurch, the word “lesbian” has no meaning except to Pauline’s doctor, who views homosexuality as a disease to be cured. Everyone agrees separating Pauline and Juliet is best; Pauline blames her mother alone and sketches a plan for her murder. No one, it seems, can or wants to understand how combustible the girls’ bond has become. But one line in Pauline’s diary says it all: “The next time I write in this diary, Mother will be dead. How odd … yet how pleasing.” This frenzy has reached a point of no return.

How could two normal girls commit such a crime? There’s no answer, and Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh don’t invent one. (It’s intriguing that Parker and Hulme, after serving five years in prison, went on to lead uneventful lives: Hulme found success writing crime novels under the name Anne Perry, and Parker changed her name and converted to Roman Catholicism.) His focus, Jackson has said, was to provide a humane look at what happened, and he does not demonize the killers; instead, he recreates their friendship and turns the fantasy world in Pauline’s journals into a mythical place using digital effects and actors in green latex suits. The result is striking (this is Peter Jackson) and menacing as the bottomless black eyes of the Borovnian creatures.

The visuals, however, are but part of the reason “Heavenly Creatures” gets under our skin. Lynskey and Winslet, both new to film acting in 1994, are astonishing finds. Winslet heaps on sunny smiles, but they are twitchy and preternaturally wide, like she’s one step away from completely losing control. With her eyes alone Lynskey projects menace beyond her 16 years. When she remarks “it’s a three-act story with a tragic ending,” there’s gravity in those words like you can’t imagine.