“Only the best people fight against all obstacles in pursuit of happiness.”
Heavenly Creatures is an odd movie, one that I can’t wrap up nicely and present to you, and I’m still trying to understand what it is that’s so odd about it. There are certainly stranger movies in terms of plot, although the story is still fairly unique. It’s not too bizarre in its style: a dark, chilling character exploration. The writing, shooting, editing – it’s all very fine work, but watching this movie evokes a strange feeling for me. Maybe I wasn’t sure if I liked either of the main characters, and I’m still not sure if I do. It could be that all the fantasy elements blended coldly with the reality of it all. After thinking on it for a while, I’m still not certain how to describe the movie just right, but I’ll say without a doubt that the film is captivating in an offbeat way that few other films are able to achieve, even if the effect isn’t the most lasting. It’s certainly one of the most surprising films I’ve seen in a while, and I was left satisfied and artistically fulfilled once Heavenly Creatures finally rolled its credits.
This movie holds some immediate weight in that it tells a true story: a 1954 murder carried out by teenage friends Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme against Parker’s own mother. As the story unravels, you find that an obsessive relationship between the two girls is at the root of the murder. The narrative builds in such a compelling way that you begin to forget that this all ends in a murder, and you get lost in the fairy tale fantasy of the two girls. There’s that classic notion that any character can be sympathetic if they serve as a story’s protagonist, and it seems to ring true for this film as well. You’re disgusted and horrified once things escalate into murder, but you start out really feeling for this friendship. Parker and Hulme are lonely, and it almost seems like a quirky, healthy companionship until things take the obsessive turn. It’s such an interesting premise to begin with, and Heavenly Creatures is crafted in a focused way that really brings you into the world of Parker and Hulme and helps you understand how such a tragedy could occur.
Another immediate piece of interest with this film is that it launched the acting career of a young Kate Winslet and was the first major success of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. Winslet comes off a bit annoying at times, and I found her opposite Melanie Lynskey as a far more interesting lead, but she still shows great acting ability and brings a vibrant, almost spastic energy to the character of Juliet Hulme. Knowing what kind of work Peter Jackson would go on to create, it’s fascinating to see him play with the fantasy elements of the film as well. The fairy tale scene towards the middle with the men made out of stone feels like a first attempt at building the Lord of the Rings monsters that Jackson would come to be known for. However, Heavenly Creatures is far darker and more bizarre than Lord of the Rings, and I would say that it’s more daring in a lot of ways. The subject matter lends itself to a chilling psychological buildup that you never get to see from Jackson’s later work, so it’s definitely a film worth checking out if only for this reason.
If I were to criticize Heavenly Creatures, I would be hard pressed to find concrete flaws. The characters come off a bit strange and dreamlike, but I’d say that it works in an important way that adds to the suspense and fantasy of the story. It’s a very successful movie that evokes an eerie mood, but I would simply say that it doesn’t achieve enough to reach a level of greatness. It works on one level: to show the obsessive fantasy that these two friends shared and the consequences of this attachment. On that level, I think the film does a phenomenal job, but the scale seems so small and the direction so limited that the film won’t stick with me in a way that a more ambitious work might. The script is probably the strongest thing about the movie, and while the execution is strong with some real artistic expression behind it, there isn’t much lasting appeal. I probably wouldn’t care to watch this movie again any time soon, although I still admire it greatly for what it accomplishes.
Heavenly Creatures is a fascinating gem, and it’s nice to see that this movie has found enough widespread appeal to be included on the 1001 List. At times, it can feel more like an exercise in film making than a fully realized piece of art, but there’s this alluring quality about the movie that will keep you intrigued from start to finish. It’s a focused work about obsession, companionship, and delusion that’s well worth a watch for what it manages to accomplish.
Films Left to Watch: 941