" Because it’s a great book doesn’t mean you have to like it "
— John Sealy, Stone Reader

MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

Sponsored links

Heavenly Creatures: The Uncut Version opens with a lulling 1950s industrial film touting the idyllic town of Christchurch, New Zealand. Breathless screams emerge over the narrator’s soothing voice. We see feet pounding on a hillside trail and the volume of the cries rises; we soon see two pairs of legs streaked with blood as they run uphill. Finally two girls emerge from a hedge, covered with blood, and shrieking, “Mummy has been dreadfully hurt!”

Director Peter Jackson’s opening makes it clear something terrible has happened. We now must learn how these two young women came to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Rich Girl Poor Girl

Heavenly Creatures showcases early Kate Winslet and Peter JacksonThe film unfolds like a psychologist’s case history. We learn that both of the girls spent extensive time in hospitals without their parents as young children, a classic cause of attachment disorders.

Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), the plain and frumpy daughter of a fishmonger and a hardbitten mother, is introverted and dour. Her new friend Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), the worldly and glamorous daughter of a new rector at Canterbury College, is irrepressible and laughing. Pauline is seduced by Juliet’s cheekiness toward their teachers, her attractive family, and the nonstop whirlwind of their friendship. Juliet idolizes her parents, insisting that her mummy has “promised never to leave me again.” Pauline is embarrassed by her family.

In one early scene, the camera swings between the two girls as they create sculptures of people and animals who populate Borovnia, a fantasy kingdom they invent. Juliet appears to effortlessly create lifelike statues in moments. Pauline’s fingers struggle to evoke a horse or a human. This reveals a contrast in temperament and class between the girls; Pauline is not as manically creative as Juliet, nor does she have the exposure to the arts her new best friend has had.

The girls’ fantasies develop as they write novels, build elaborate castles, and sculpt figures together. When Pauline receives a diary for Christmas, voice-overs throughout the rest of the film excerpted from her journals give us deeper insight into her increasing obsessions and frustrations. “We have decided how sad it is for other people that they cannot appreciate our genius,” says Pauline.

A Crack in the Universe

A crack in the girls’ private universe appears when Juliet is diagnosed with tuberculosis. The girls are separated when she is sent to a sanitorium to recover. Juliet had been left to the care of a hospital once before, and she hated it. Now “abandoned” again, she falls into a depression.

Pauline wants nothing more than to get tuberculosis herself so she can be with Juliet. Instead, she must settle for writing letters to her quarantined friend. In long letters, Pauline writes as “Charles” writing love letters to “Deborah,” royals in the fantasy kingdom of Borovnia that they have invented. Pauline’s disappointing first sexual experience during this time, with a young man lodging in her family’s home, only intensifies her interest in Juliet.

Pauline and Juliet spend so much time with each other that their parents question whether they are more than friends. After all, in 1950s New Zealand, homosexuality is seen as a disease “that can strike at any time.” But whenever Pauline and Juliet’s relationship is threatened, they withdraw into their own private plans and fantasies, and the accusations of homosexuality become self-fulfilling.

Murder, She Wrote

Juliet recovers from her illness but shows other signs of fragility. She has cultivated such a rosy view of her parents that she is in shock when she discovers her mother’s affair and her parents’ intent to divorce. She panics when they tell her of their plan to send her off to an aunt in South Africa, once again abandoning her “for the good of your health.”

Pauline considers suicide at the prospect of her friend’s removal to South Africa but decides there is only one way to remove all the obstacles that stand between them — they plan to kill Pauline’s mother. Juliet shows flashes of misgiving but no resistance to Pauline’s plan, instead helping her rationalize it as she helps stash away the items they will need on “the Day of the Happy Event,” as Pauline labels it in her diary. The film marches toward the murder and it becomes excruciatingly clear what is to happen.

Indeed, there are no surprises at the movie’s end. We see the girls commit the brutal murder. A slow-motion sequence in black and white shows Juliet waving goodbye from an ocean liner as Pauline disappears into the crowd on the shore. In the film’s closing comments, we learn that as one of the conditions of their punishment and parole after the pair were convicted of murder, they were never to meet again.

Haunting Hatred

The murder itself is not so haunting, despite this being a true story. Rather, the image that remains is Pauline’s scowl. The camera rests on her face for an interminable few seconds as she glares furiously at a psychologist who lectures her about her friendship with Juliet. Suddenly he is impaled on a sword, in Pauline’s imagination skewered by the murderous enfant terrible of their fantasy kingdom. Pauline’s hateful scowl left me hoping I never find myself the object of such extreme disdain.

Despite the compelling performances by Kate Winslet (in her first feature film) and her costar, Melanie Lynskey, this story is nowhere near as provocative as another exploration of unknown forces in the lives of girls, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Weir’s weird anti-narrative – the film never explains what happened to a few girls who went on a picnic and disappeared under mysterious circumstances – results in deeper questions about reality. Heavenly Creatures starts by showing us two people who have lost touch with reality and spends its two hours building an explanation for their actions. In the end, there is no mystery, only psychology.

Picture and Sound

The camera work creates a creepy atmosphere. The girls are often viewed from odd camera angles that reveal society’s condescension toward them and their claustrophobic feelings. The camera looks at authority figures and elders close-up from below, as if we are seeing their imposing presences through one of the girls’ eyes.

The DVD picture showcases Alun Bollinger’s cinematography. He contrives interesting visual effects that contribute to the story, as when he overexposes Juliet’s face but nothing else in the frame when Juliet has a vision that Pauline does not see.

Post-Production Revelations

The closing titles of this film do not tell the entire story. After Heavenly Creatures was released in 1994, a New Zealand reporter discovered that Juliet Hulme had changed her name to Anne Perry, who is now a bestselling mystery writer living in Scotland. Perry was initially silent but soon admitted her identity. She did not try to explain her actions except to say she thought her best friend would kill herself if she did not help her commit the murder, and her judgment may have been altered by the drugs her doctor prescribed for her illness (drugs that doctors have since rejected for their side effects). Perry sharply criticized the “idiotic filmmakers” for portraying her and her friend as lesbians, yet her best friend’s diary entries make it clear that the girls’ relationship had a sexual aspect.

A couple of years later, a New Zealand Woman’s Weekly reporter discovered Pauline’s identity as the head of an English girls’ school, provoking a second media frenzy.