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November 4, 2016

Heavenly Creatures

by Franz Patrick


Heavenly Creatures (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although “Heavenly Creatures” tells the story of a real-life murder in 1954 New Zealand which involves two teenage girls who share a very close friendship, great humanity is employed in trying to understand the motivations of the killers. As a result, the film is uncomfortable to sit through at times—especially the excellent final few minutes where Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) lead their prey to an isolated location to be murdered in cold blood—but not ever does fail to compel and fascinate.

Lynskey and Winslet in their first feature film are outstanding. If it isn’t for the title credits where it underlines the performers’ first rodeo, viewers might likely assume that the co-stars have plenty of experience. Lynskey plays a teenage outcast with such intensity, perfectly modulated roughness, and honesty, I was reminded of some of the type of girls in my high school who proudly considered themselves to belong outside of the social circle. Winslet, too, shines as a world traveler born in a family with a high level of education and plenty of means.

With the help of an intelligent, insightful and daring screenplay by Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson, Winslet and Lynskey, even though their characters are worlds apart, successfully find a commonality—and strong chemistry—that is consistently believable, curiously touching, and at times downright horrifying. A handful of elements that typically do not belong in a biography crime-drama work wondrously here.

For example, Pauline and Juliet feel highly connected to the arts, especially when it comes to music and writing fiction. So they construct their own world. They even call each other new names. But instead of the material shying away from fictional elements and techniques in order to avoid taking away emphasis from the murder, it embraces them fully. The film uses special and visual effects quite generously so that we are placed inside the minds of subjects. It is critical that we learn as much as possible about their fantasy world in order to try to make sense of the many factors that lead them to decisions with very real and tragic consequences.

It certainly would have been easier to have painted the subjects as monsters who were in love but Kiwi society was cruel when it came homosexuality at the time and so inevitably the couple was driven to madness and murder. Instead, this is merely one of the many strands which make up the film’s psychological study. There is a recurring theme involving the two girls being highly imaginative but they also happen to share a mental fragility. Look closely during scenes where Pauline and Juliet are challenged—intruded—by various authority figures. Lynskey and Winslet translate the many layers of their characters into a psychological study that demands undivided attention and humanity.

Directed by Peter Jackson, “Heavenly Creatures” is able to locate the pulse of what makes the case so fascinating and stays there. And with that powerful final scene—it takes a scalpel onto the surface of where the pulse can be felt and cuts forcefully inwards.

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