Peter Jackson | Heavenly Creatures (1994)

To Pauline and Juliet, this impending separation feels exactly like the end of the world.

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Peter Jackson is justly famed as the director of the sublime Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–2003), as well as, among other things, the bloated Hobbit trilogy (2012–2014) and an entirely unnecessary remake of King Kong (2005). It’s also fairly well known that he got his start as a director with less lofty undertakings, including the splatter film Bad Taste (1987) and the puppet comedy Meet the Feebles (1989). Between the cheap exploitation films and the big-budget epics, Jackson directed a remarkable psychological drama, Heavenly Creatures (1994), which has its moments of splatter, but also demonstrates a keen understanding of adolescent psychology.

Heavenly Creatures is based on the Parker-Hulme murder case, which took place in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1954. Jackson does not concentrate on the murder or trial, however, but centers his story on the intense friendship of two teenage girls—Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynsky, in her screen debut) and Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet, also in her screen debut)—and on the imaginary worlds they create together. Pauline and Juliet are a classic study in contrast—the dark-haired, overweight Pauline is awkward and feels hemmed in by her working class family, while the beautiful, blonde Julia is the confident, indulged child of a professor and a radio host—but they bond over their common experiences with isolating illnesses (osteomyelitis for Pauline, TB for Juliet) and their disdain for the conventional world of their teachers and families.

Before long, Pauline and Juliet are falling in love as only young people can, in an all-consuming passion that has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with finding your soul mate, the person who allows you to become your true self. Together they create a fantasy kingdom, Borovnia, populated by plasticine figures they sculpt themselves, and brought to life through stories they write together. Their fantasy world soon becomes more attractive than the ordinary world of lessons and chores, which they resentfully acknowledge when they must. Eventually, Pauline and Juliet create an even more consuming fantasy, the “Fourth World,” a secular paradise populated by actors and musicians (chief among them the opera singer turned matinee idol Mario Lanza, whom both adore).

Passions run high in adolescence, and a dominant feature of that period of life is a lack of perspective. Whatever is happening now is the most important thing in the world, and you can give yourself absolutely to people and causes, untempered by the perspective and common sense most people develop with maturity. So it’s a wonderful time of life, but also a dangerous one, and both the wonder and terror are felt by Pauline and Juliet. They are completely happy together, but for that reason also feel keenly the threat of being separated from each other and deprived of their created world.

Life, unfortunately, is not terribly concerned with indulging the heightened emotions of teenage girls. They are separated when Juliet is hospitalized with a recurrence of TB, during which time they write long letters in the characters of the royal couple of Borovnia, and the plasticine figures come to life as their protectors. (You have to cheer when an unpleasant priest is dealt a particularly gruesome death.) When Juliet is released, their relationship becomes even more intense, and a cartoonishly awful psychiatrist provides Pauline’s mother, Honora (Sarah Peirse), with a dimwitted but utterly conventional explanation: incipient lesbianism. To be fair, many psychiatrists of the time would have come up with the same diagnosis, which is something to remember the next time someone tells you how much better everything was in the 1950s.

Things get worse when Juliet’s parents announce they’re divorcing and she will be shipped off to stay with a relative in South Africa. (They may encourage their daughter’s imagination, but the Hulmes are also remarkably self-centered and neglectful parents.) At first, Pauline thinks she will somehow be able to accompany Juliet, but that idea is quickly quashed, and it’s clear that both sets of parents are actually relieved at having an excuse to separate the two. To Pauline and Juliet, this impending separation feels exactly like the end of the world, and they become fixated on Honora as the obstacle to their lives together. During the last few weeks before Juliet is due to depart, they plan and execute her murder in truly gruesome fashion (that’s where the Jackson’s delight in splatter gets to express itself).

A postscript informs us that Pauline’s diary, which detailed their plans for her mother’s murder, was discovered and helped lead to their conviction, and that one condition of their release was that they would not contact each other in the future (the latter detail is disputed). One fun fact not in the postscript: Juliet grew up to become the novelist Anne Perry, who is revealed in the 2009 documentary Anne Perry: Interiors to be an expert manipulator of those around her.

Jackson’s greatest insight in Heavenly Creatures is to treat the imaginary world of these young women as absolutely real. The single most breathtaking sequence involves Juliet, upset that her parents are once again leaving her alone, entering the Fourth World for the first time. It takes place on a very green New Zealand meadow, and is somewhat reminiscent of Dorothy stepping from her black-and-white Kansas home into the Technicolor world of Oz, with two key differences: In Heavenly Creatures, the fantasy world is the creation of those who choose to enter it, and there’s no tornado or ruby slippers to bridge the two worlds. Instead, Pauline and Juliet simply choose to believe, and soon the Fourth World exists in their reality every bit as much as the workday world in which their families dwell.

Also worth noting is that Heavenly Creatures includes no tacked-on moral about how plain old home is better than any magical fantasy world. Jackson has the courage to allow his heroines to not only create their own alternative universe, but also to fight to remain in it. Tragedy ensues, but who is most to blame for that tragedy remains a question open to interpretation. | Sarah Boslaugh

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