In the early-to-mid nineteen-fifties in Christchurch, New Zealand, a fateful meeting occurred when Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) arrived from overseas to a school there. Her family was well off and her father took a post at the local university, but she announced herself as precocious when within minutes of being introduced to her new class she was correcting her French teacher, an action which immediately endeared her to one of the other girls there, a bright but grumpy fourteen-year-old called Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey). Soon they were deep in conversation, finding a connection or two: they both suffered poor health, they had mixed feelings about their parents, they both had rich fantasy lives...
When director Peter Jackson's best films are discussed, most immediately go to the Lord of the Rings trilogy as his major achievement, and it's true that series was something to be admired if only as a technical triumph, not to mention all the marshalling such a huge project needed from Jackson and his team. But his real masterpiece was a far smaller film, one made when he was only known, if at all, among horror fans who had appreciated his splattery shock comedies; nobody expected what to all intents and purposes was an exploitation flick manufacturer to have something of this intensity and this skill in him, and this has been startling audiences ever since.
As suggested to Jackson by his wife Fran Walsh, Heavenly Creatures detailed a real life crime story, a sensational murder committed by two teenage girls - that's not a spoiler, as the opening deftly illustrates the impact the event had on polite New Zealand society by building from a well-mannered vintage information film to the two girls running screaming through the trees covered in blood. But this was no dry reconstruction, it genuinely got inside the heads of one of the most destructive examples of a folie à deux of its era as the two participants had conjured a fantasy world for themselves which was as real to them as the prim and proper society they were existing in was to everyone else.
Yet every scene in this tells a thousand words, such was the avalanche of subtext and meaning the film that it's little wonder this may have never been a mass appeal blockbuster like the Tolkien adaptations, but those who love this film are truly devoted to it. A lot of this is down to the manner in which it remained sympathetic to everyone involved, so you could understand the damage those around Pauline and Juliet were doing to the girls which ironically only pushed them closer together: the authority figures are quietly horrified they may be dealing with the love that dare not speak its name, not there and at that era at any rate, though the girls seem barely aware of the concept of lesbianism.
Just as they are barely aware of the consequences of anything they determinedly exclude from their bubble, for though you could also very well see the damage they were likewise doing to those who cared about them and wanted the couple to get a sense of perspective which was utterly beyond them. The intensity of each sequence would have been difficult to sustain in many a lesser film, but here grows and grows with horrible inevitability. It took a clutch of strong performances to convince with a story this potentially fragile, and in the wrong hands the aims could have fallen apart at the seams, yet Winslet and Lynskey, both making their film debuts (the latter having been found mere days before shooting began) are never less than committed to the characters.
As their "Fourth World", with its intricately constructed hierarchies, heroes and villains increases in influence over them - the narration is lifted straight from Pauline's diaries, which become more and more disturbing to hear - Jackson mixes it with what everyone else would see, so we can recognise this was an escape from troubled teen years as Pauline resents her well-meaning mother and Juliet is torn up inside about her distant parents, but the danger of this being all-consuming is ratcheted up to unbearable degrees. The direction employed the same tricks of his previous efforts, that mobile camera, the sense of humour, the effects and makeup, and you never let go of the impending doom, that tragedy where you cannot work out the solution before the point it all went dreadfully wrong. Deeply sad, weirdly captivating, and a benchmark for true crime movies, not to mention the darkest of coming of age films. Music by Peter Dasent.
Hugely talented New Zealand director best known today for his Lord of the Rings adaptations. Started out making inventive, entertaining gore comedies like Bad Taste and Braindead, while his adult Muppet-spoof Meet the Feebles was a true one-off. Jackson's powerful murder drama Heavenly Creatures was his breakthrough as a more 'serious' filmmaker, and if horror comedy The Frighteners was a bit of a disappoinment, then his epic The Lord Of The Rings trilogy - Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King were often breathtaking interpretations of Tolkien's books. 2005's blockbuster King Kong saw Jackson finally realise his dream of updating his all-time favourite film, but literary adaptation The Lovely Bones won him little respect. In 2012 he returned to Middle Earth with the three-part epic The Hobbit and in 2018 directed acclaimed WWI doc They Shall Not Grow Old.