This dark gem of a film from 1994 made Peter Jackson’s reputation and led to his receiving directorial duties for The Lord of the Rings. Based on one of the most notorious crimes in New Zealand history, Heavenly Creatures holds close to the facts, making heavy use of diaries kept by one of the perpetrators. It’s a thriller, a true-crime story, a drama, a romance, and– because it enters the overactive imaginations of the teens involved– a fantasy.

I worship the power of these lovely two
With that adoring love known to so few.
‘Tis indeed a miracle, one must feel
That two such heavenly creatures are real….
Why are men such fools they will not realize
The wisdom that is hidden behind those strange eyes?
And these wonderful people are you and I.
–Pauline Yvonne Parker, 1953.

Cast and Crew

Director: Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson.
The script incorporates material written by Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme.

Cast
Melane Lynskey as Pauline Yvonne Parker/Rieper
Kate Winslet as Juliet Hulme
Sarah Peirse as Honorah Parker Rieper
Diana Kent as Hilda Hulme
Clive Merrison as Dr. Henry Hulme
Simon O’Connor as Herbert Rieper
Peter Elliott as Bill Perry
Jed Brophy as John
Stephen Reilly as Mario Lanza
Jean Guérin as Orson Welles

Full cast and crew details may be found at the imdb

Available at Amazon

Premise

The obsessive relationship between two emotionally disturbed, highly imaginative girls in 1954 leads them to commit a horrific crime.

High Point

1. Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey give stunning debuts– even more so when one considers their ages at the time (Lynksey was 17 and Winslet, 19). They’re older than the girls they play, but still able to pass as early teens, and their youth contributes to the disturbing effect of the tale. Winslet makes Juliet so exuberant in her oddness that one becomes embarrassed for the character. Lynskey plays Pauline so perfectly as a proto-emo that her isolation becomes palpable. It would have been very easy to turn these characters, who are melodramatic even for teenagers, into figures of pure farce.

2. Nothing can excuse the crime, and I expect not even the killers, so many years later, could offer the definitive explanation for their actions. However, this film brings us entirely into their world through the memorable performances of the leads, the faithful recreation of the times, and the compelling depiction of the girls’ fantasy lives, that we feel as though we understand.

Low Points

1. This film has no significant low points. Some of the authority figures have been presented parodically, and viewers may find this jarring when set against the realistic characterizations. The film shows us the world through the girls’ eyes, and these moments provide a bridge of sorts between the realistic and fantastic aspects of the film.

2. In some areas, the film is only available in a censored version. While highly suggestive scenes involving teenage actresses (playing younger teens) do appear, they are not explicit, and they’re certainly relevant to the film.

The Review

Originality: 4/6. This story has inspired other films, but this is the first adaptation that strives for fidelity to the original events, even using actual locations wherever possible.

Effects: 5/6. Contrasting with the realistic depiction of 1950s New Zealand we have depictions of the girls’ fantasy world, with its violent lovers, crumbling castles, lush gardens, giant butterflies, and white unicorns. This imaginary “Fourth World” is cheesy, but in the way that a pair of teenage girls’ imaginary creations might be. The film makes generally effective use of CGI and physical effects. Most remarkable are scenes where they interact with realized versions of their own clay sculptures..

Story 6/6.

Acting: 6/6. I’ve addressed the leads elsewhere. The supporting cast members generally provide nuanced performances.

Production: 6/6.

Emotional Response: 6/6. The film runs the range of emotions. I could not turn away as the killing moment approached. The script makes excellent use of dark humour, especially in the final scenes. Nearly everything the victim says drips with dramatic irony and sinister double meanings. We also feel the tension in the killers’ minds. They experience reservations because the woman is being so nice and considerate of them. The touches of humour don’t provide comic relief. Rather, they acknowledge our discomfort with the events and ultimately intensify the horror.

Overall: 6/6. Heavenly Creatures will make many viewers uncomfortable. It also lacks the broad appeal of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings or King Kong. It is, however, a film worth seeing, and possibly the director’s finest.

In total, Heavenly Creatures receives 39/42.

Notes

Perhaps the strangest twist occurred outside of the film. Despite the publicity surrounding the Parker-Hulme Murder, celebrated mystery writer Anne Perry had kept secret from the general public the fact that she had been Juliet Hulme, one of the teenage killers. Publicity surrounding Heavenly Creatures led to the fact becoming known.