‘Heavenly Creatures’ succeeds in humanizing its infamous characters

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Heavenly Creatures

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Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh
1994, New Zealand / Germany

In Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson establishes the societal isolation of his protagonists right from the beginning. The movie opens with a 1950s documentary concerning the story’s setting, Christchurch, New Zealand. The area is wholesome and idyllic. People ride their bikes down busy streets. Children play in the local park. Vibrant flowers bloom in the springtime sun. Then, just as the documentary’s narrator begins to proclaim that Christchurch is New Zealand’s finest town, the distant sound of screaming is heard. It swells to a terrifying volume.

Jump to Pauline and Juliet (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet in their extraordinary debut performances) running through a forest, blood dripping down their legs. The quick cut from picturesque small town to horrific reality serves to give the viewer a feeling of displacement. These young girls are far removed from their hometown environment. They are shut off from the world. All they have is each other.

There are several approaches Jackson could have taken with his film. Many directors in the past have retold the events surrounding real-life murders. In Jackson’s case, those events were especially chilling. Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme became close friends when Juliet’s family moved to Christchurch in 1952. They had the same interests in adventure stories and writing, and eventually the girls became completely inseparable. This close bond soon came under the scrutiny of their parents, though, with both sets fearing that their daughters were becoming lovers. Plans were made to split-up the girls. Due to the circumstances surrounding the situation, Pauline came to blame her mother for the impending separation. She and Juliet planned to bludgeon Pauline’s mother to death. In 1954, they successfully carried out their scheme.

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During the girls’ trial, the case received a large amount of media attention, with many labeling Pauline and Juliet as monsters. For his film, Jackson decided to give the girls more definition. A procedural story that detailed the facts of the crime and the trial would have done little to humanize the two. Indeed, without letting the viewers inside the girls’ heads, Jackson would have had a difficult time allowing an audience to understand them. Thankfully, though, he avoids this problem.

There is little objectivity to Heavenly Creatures outside of the first few scenes. Once basic characterization is established for Pauline and Juliet, the film becomes an amalgamation of fantasy and reality. Everything the audience sees is filtered through an emotional lens, allowing them to witness the internal experiences of the two girls. Much of this is achieved through the film’s cinematography and erratic musical score.

For instance, take the scene where Pauline first visits Juliet’s home, Ilam. The soft lighting makes the estate look dreamlike and tranquil, almost like something out of a fairy tale. The two girls dash through the trees on some sort of medieval adventure, with the kinetic camera movements emphasizing the action. The music sounds grand and chivalrous throughout. The whole scene is so shameless in its fervent innocence that it almost feels like a moment from a Disney television movie. But it’s not. In one scene, Jackson has drawn the viewer into Pauline and Juliet’s fantastical world. To the audience, it is an illusion. To Pauline and Juliet, it becomes reality.

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The girls use their fantasies as a means of escaping the dull life around them. They consider their parents and peers to be hopeless idiots. They hope to one-day leave them all behind, set out to Hollywood to marry the film stars they worship as gods, and stay beside each other for the rest of their lives. Of course, this does not happen. Their parents begin to force them apart, and the more powerful the wedge is between them, the more intensely they escape into their daydreams. Pauline and Juliet are frantic in their desire to keep reality from breaking through to them, but soon the force becomes too great. The misery of the real world seeps in. Their fantasies begin to take a darker turn. Their imagined characters turn into ruthless murderers, and their idyllic kingdom transforms into a realm of lust and corruption.

Eventually, the girls’ separation is almost certain. Juliet will be taken from New Zealand to live with her aunt in South Africa. Desperation takes hold, and dark fantasies become dark realities. Though both sets of parents are involved with pulling the girls apart, the film makes Pauline singling out her mother into a logical scenario. Honora (Sarah Peirse) openly disapproves of her daughter’s friendship throughout most of the story, and in the teetering mind of a teenager, this makes her the prime enemy.

What makes Heavenly Creatures brilliant is its ability to tell this story in an almost empathetic way. The audience is witness to the intense joy of the girls’ friendship and the crippling depression of their separation. There is no way to demonstrate this through objective action, and witnessing the thoughts of the characters is the only method of humanizing them. Once Jackson maps their emotional turmoil, though, he abruptly shifts to reality to chart Pauline and Juliet’s final actions.

The last ten minutes of the film are a marvel of dread and suspense. As the girls slowly enact each step of their plan, Jackson emphasizes clocks several times. Whereas in the earlier parts of the plot time was lost in the throes of fantasy, now everything is grounded to the real world. When the murder is carried out, it is handled in an incredibly graphic way. There are no more kings and queens or lighthearted adventure. Watching the event, it is difficult not to recall the opening scene of Pauline and Juliet running through the woods. Blood is dripping down their legs. An allusion to menstruation, perhaps? The beginning of adulthood, the death of innocence. The girls are, indeed, displaced from the world around them. Their brutal actions have labeled them monsters and left them alone, isolated from even their own escapist fantasies. It is only through watching the earlier parts of the film that a viewer can observe and appreciate their more human characteristics.






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