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HEAVENLY CREATURES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kate Winslet, Melanie Lynskey, Sarah Peirse, Diana Kent, Clive Merrison, Simon O’Connor
Director:  Peter Jackson
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Miramax
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  109 Minutes
Release Date:  September 24, 2002

“How sad it is for other people, that they cannot appreciate our genius…”

Film ****

When I first bought my DVD player five years ago, I sat down and eagerly made a list of every title I especially wanted to see on disc.  That’s not surprising.  What may surprise a lot of people was the number one title on my list.  It wasn’t Raiders, Star Wars, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, or The Godfather.  It was Heavenly Creatures.

Describing why Heavenly Creatures means so much to me is like trying to describe what vanilla tastes like.  The only movie I’ve seen more often than it is 2001, yet no matter how many times I see it, it affects me like it did the first time.  For me, it’s a rare experience where intimate knowledge of a film’s every line and every frame doesn’t diminish its power.  It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy, where choices lead to dire consequences.  Even though you may know every beat of Hamlet, you still hang on to each word as it spirals towards its unchanging conclusion, as though some part of you irrationally hoped that this time it would be different.

Directed and co-written by Peter Jackson, this movie is based on the true story of a 1954 crime that shook New Zealand to its core.  More significantly, it’s the story of two remarkable school girls who did the unthinkable.  Their tale will captivate and horrify you.

Pauline Reiper (Lynskey) is quiet and introverted.  Juliet Hulme (Winslet) is brash and open.  When Juliet arrives in New Zealand with her family and attends Pauline’s school, the girls strike up an unusual and vigorous friendship, fueled by their love of art, literature and film, as well as their fertile imaginations.

Their relationship intensifies into something that defies description, much to the concern of their parents.  Fearing something “abnormal”, both sides want to see their daughters spending less time together.  The sad truth is, at least in this film, that despite the intensity and unconventionality of their relationship, despite the fact that they often dreamed up tales of bloodshed and mayhem, there was something decidedly innocent about them.  Innocent even up until the time when they commit the deed that would tear them apart forever.

The finale of this movie never ceases to amaze me in the way it affects me.  As the credits roll, I notice my breath in my throat, a tremor in my hands, and a tear in my eye.  Images linger in my mind long after they’ve disappeared from the screen.  It’s horror and sadness irrevocably melded…tragedy compounded by the girls’ misguided belief that they were securing their future.  Instead of securing it, they lost it irretrievably.

Two wonderful young actresses made their debut with this film.  While Melanie Lynskey was terrific as Pauline, it was Kate Winslet who captured my attention (and heart) back in 1994.  When I wrote a piece for Connection magazine listing three of the best female film performances for young actresses to study, I gladly named Ms. Winslet for her incredible and courageous work in this picture.  She was beautiful and brilliant, and it was no surprise to me that some years later she would have starred in the biggest box office hit of all time and have scored no less than three Oscar nominations.

But Peter Jackson, who really captured the world’s attention with his astonishing work on The Lord of the Rings, really authored a modest masterpiece with this film.  He almost invokes the spirits of Pauline and Juliet and their imaginations in order to make their world come to life on screen.  His blend of story, visual effects and character made Heavenly Creatures a singularly unique movie.  Nothing quite like it came before it, or has come sense.  It’s no wonder it remains my pick for favorite picture from the 1990s.

Sadly, reality always seems to conquer fantasy, and experience always ravishes innocence.  Once upon a time, two young girls managed to shut those lessons out for a little longer than most, and live in an imaginary world where those things never happen, and for a brief moment, they found happiness and fulfillment in one another.  Then they paid the price for it.

Video ***

I’m so pleased after loving this movie for almost a decade to finally see it in widescreen format.  This anamorphic offering from Miramax frames the film much better than previous pan & scan releases.  The colors and detail levels are generally very good and noticeably improved over the VHS release.  Occasionally darker images lose some sharpness, but these aren’t frequent occurrences.  Peter Jackson’s sometimes extreme use of lighting and color bring the fantasy worlds to life, and they look very good here.

Audio **1/2

The original 2 channel surround track works serviceably, though most of the picture is dialogue oriented.  The music, including classics by Mario Lanza, sounds rich and full, and a few livelier sequences bring the rear stage into play nicely.  Not a spectacular offering by nature, but it suits the movie very well.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Some movies mean so much to you that trying to write about them makes you feel like a second rate scholar in elementary English.  Thoughts are easy to convey, emotions, too, but mix them until they’re inseparable as they are for me watching Heavenly Creatures, and it’s hard to sort through them.  I hope my inability to express my feelings more eloquently here doesn’t deter you from giving this film a chance.  It’s a true modern classic and a haunting, unforgettable experience.