Buried Treasures: Heavenly Creatures (1994)

on Friday, September 09, 2011
Buried Treasures is a column dedicated to things we feel have gone underappreciated, often both critically and commercially.

'Heavenly Creatures' (1994) // Words: Matthew Paskins

Two girls are running up a wooded path. The camera comes lolloping after them. They’re wailing and you can’t completely tell if it’s because they’re terrified, or excited. Although, as the roar continues it sounds more ragged and more animal. The film stock changes to black and white, still focused on their running legs, and this time they’re running along the deck of a ship, waving to a behatted man and a smartly dressed woman; the adults turn and we see the edge of his glasses, his pipe.

Back to the colour and the steady-cam run, another adult woman emerges into the garden. Now we see clearly that the girls are covered in blood: "it’s mummy", says one, "she’s terribly hurt." A black screen appears; an explanatory caption; the title. Then a girls’ choir starts to sing.

I hadn’t seen 'Heavenly Creatures' before the forthcoming remastered release was offered for review. It is wonderful, by far the best thing Peter Jackson ('Lord Of The Rings', 'King Kong' etc) has done so far. The reason it’s so good I think is that it emerges from the world of its two main characters, Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet). They’re best friends, fourteen, in one of those airlessly intimate friendships which defines its own world.

If Juliet and Pauline want to see unicorns frolicking in what had been a forlorn landscape, they can. And if one of them falls off her bike, of course the camera zooms in as though a death has occurred. When Juliet decides that Orson Welles can’t be included in their shrine because he’s just the worst, his picture is discarded and drifts away like something truly significant has happened.

As it has, the only thing in the world that matters: their friendship. The girls are brilliant, creating whole worlds together, snarking off at teachers, taking baths together, kissing now and then, sculpting kings from plasticine, reading Biggles, feeling jealous, rejected, murderous. They’re also unbearable. From the moment Kate Winslet comes onscreen it’s clear she intends to do all of her acting at once.

Plummy beyond the call of Englishness abroad, Juliet talks condescendingly back to her teachers, sniggers into her sleeve and is generally the subject of much concern. Pauline can’t bear her gentle family despite (or maybe because of) her father’s amazing slapstick.

Keeping the story from the girl’s perspective allows Peter Jackson to relax. The film has none of the belaboured epic of his more recent work, and a great deal of the glee that informed his early head-bursting horror comedies. It all seems like heartbreakingly tremendous fun, which of course is how Juliet and Melanie see it too.

That also means there is none of the plodding over-determination of (say) Gus Van Sant’s 'Elephant', which conjured up a listless adolescent friendship and managed to suggest that video-gamers love to kill. (The conjunction of the two films perhaps suggests that governments should form an Intimate Friendship taskforce before more blood is spilled).

The film is based on real events but I don’t think it tells us anything much about them. Instead it’s about the delight – for film-maker and for characters – which is a little too close to wildness and a bit too close to tears.

'Heavenly Creatures' has been remastered and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on September 12th.

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