Thursday, February 18, 2010

Peter Jackson's early glories part 1: "Heavenly Creatures"

Peter Jackson is amazing. Yes, "The Frighteners" was a bit of a mess, and I didn't bother watching "King Kong." However, his earliest films were all glorious - "Bad Taste," (a wackjob funfest), "Meet the Feebles" (Muppets go hardcore & porn-y), and "Braindead" ("Evil Dead 2" in New Zealand)... For those who can't appreciate demented movies, the real sign of this man's raw artistry came with his first "serious" piece - 1994's "Heavenly Creatures."

"HC" is the true story of two 1950's teenage girls, Pauline and Juliet, in New Zealand. They were good friends to an unhealthy degree. Their parents, disturbed by their dependence (and horrified they might be gay), decided to separate the two. This resulted in an awful crime. Sorry for the spoiler.

Jackson directed this film perfectly. True stories - especially the ones with real emotions and a body count - are often woefully overplayed by cinema. They take the "Pearl Harbor" route and render their subject worthlessly banal. Or they take the "Cinderella Man" and "Monster" path, villifying historic victims to make the protagonists more sympathetic.

But Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh wrote something that neither disrespected reality nor glamorized their subjects. They wrote (and he directed) something worthy and beautiful. The dialogue and acting are first-rate. The camera operates with the sort of mastery you can see in all of Jackson's work (yes, this includes the three films above).

More impressive is the deep, powerful effect it has on the emotions of the audience. This movie doesn't have to tell you what to feel - you can't help but follow the narrative, can't help but have your emotions drawn into the experience as it plays out on the screen.

I guess that this film might really cement PJ as a "fantasy director." In trying to understand how the two girls clung so firmly to each other, he pulls us into the waking dreams so common to children. And it's easy to see how the right circumstances could trap two teens in the sort of willful illusion more appropriate to younger people. Hell, the film and game industries make quite a profit off of this delayed adolescence.

"Heavenly Creatures" may be remembered in a lot of ways... It might be seen as Peter Jackson's first "real film" (total bs since the others were grand). It might be seen as Kate Winslet's first picture (it is an impressive job for a newbie)... Many see it as an important "teen movie."

While I agree with that last statement, the appeal of the work isn't limited by age group. For me, this is an entertaining, thoughtful, and emotional way to envision a brutal event, the lives of two troubled teenagers, and the nature of fantasy. This is a perfect film... Please be warned: after this point, anything I discuss could ruin the surprise you have ahead of you.

"Heavenly Creatures" begins near the end, and it's amazing that the spirit of it is so infectious. You get caught up in it, forgetting what lies ahead for the story. This is all the more impressive since the moods of past and future are wildly different

Throughout, I love Kate Winslet's performance as Juliet. I suppose if someone missed the point completely, they'd think that she was overacting. It was pretty clear from the first moment that she has the vivid and slightly overdone manner of an extremely willful teen. She's someone who enjoys projecting herself strongly and recklessly.

All the actors are quite good, especially Pauline (Melanie Lynskey). It's seen in the way that Juliet's father always radiates an ancient stodginess, as well as Pauline's frequent expressions of distrust, anger, and unhappiness. Only the folks with the least lines (e.g., Pauline's Dad and Bill) make a small impact.

The story here is told through every part - music, words, and camera. The narrative moments - taken straight from Pauline's real diary - cleave to and inform the picture's theme. And the gentle score is nicely done, adding something very natural to the movie's flow. Even if opera were not used throughout the flick, the experience would still be terribly operatic...

Most of all, to me, PJ makes this tale speak through its visuals. Juliet's father sits before an assembly, much like a graduation day ceremony. The view is from a few feet above and in front of the man, angled to look down upon his face, mortar board, and gown. It says as much about the moment as any spoken dialogue

He actually thinks that looks like a symbol of love, doesn't he? 

The camerawork astounds as it speeds along a beach, inches above the ground. It careens straight at a sand castle, and suddenly, we're inside of it. Moments like this are emotionally effective, but they're also quite impressive. This one especially serves as a touchstone to the director, given the appearance of similar techniques in "The Lord of the Rings" series (you'll know them when you see them).

The heavy use of models and figurines in the story also hearken back to Peter Jackson's origin as a filmmaker - as a child, he used toy soldiers to make WWI trench films in his backyard. I guess the lesson is "do what you love." What's more, shot after shot is pretty, inspired; it's well beyond the by-the-numbers camerawork seen in so many films. Yet this is helped by a simple fact: time and again, New Zealand looks like the most beautiful place ever. 

The movie also has a thematic richness that is uncommon: smaller aspects are the contrast between rich and poor, or the deference given to immigrant British by native Kiwis. Once you notice them, you'll see that these aspects pop up frequently. They're seen in a shoddy X-Mas tree, a lush mansion, or the surprise of a proper handshake between low-class Kiwi and high-class Brit. 

Yet these issues also occur when you realize that most assume the poor girl is "corrupting" the rich one. It's near the film's halfway mark that another big theme appears: the homophobic paranoia of older generations. With growing frequency, we're shown the cautious expressions of characters when they see how close the girls get. Alarm registers when a father sees the pair stroking hands. 

As the adults become increasingly worried, the era's awful treatment of homosexuality comes right to the fore. It's discussed exactly like a disease - and a terrible one, at that. Of course, no one considers the possibility that the two girls are only sexual, or in love, so much as they fulfill each other's dreams for a better life. They haven't found their princes, and they're lost in a private obsession...

Once the grownups have found the courage to voice their fears, society doesn't handle the situation with more compassion. As a physician tells Pauline's mother, "it can strike at any time." I swear the gay community should get that on a t-shirt and wear it with pride. 

Everything I've discussed before speaks to Jackson's superiority as a filmmaker. PJ has a sex scene in this film - incredibly, it shares much with Steven Spielberg's closing sex scene in "Munich." Honestly, the latter didn't work for me at all - both the sex and the fantasy parts of it. I nearly laughed, especially when I saw Eric Bana's face. I also felt distracted by Spielberg's inter-cutting, which didn't fit the moment and was manipulative. With so many kids, he should direct sex better than that... 

PJ's version is simultaneously different and similar. It doesn't rely on manipulation, and is more believable. In "HC," it's the girl whose mind is lost in fantasy, but her mental escape makes her feel fulfilled. Many women might, unfortunately, relate to the character's experience. Not so with "Munich." I doubt that many men, making love to their wife, envision terrorist massacres. PJ also includes intentional humor, via her lover's expression - poor bloke looks like he's being framed for murder. Jackson's early effort is superior to Spielberg's mature one in every way.

As fantasies weave through the piece, they speak as clearly and loudly to the characters and events as any real dialogue or action. The fantasy sequence interspersed through the beginning (shown after the crime occurred) blazes with the promise of the girls' hopes: together on holiday, frolicking on a ship's deck as they run toward Juliet's parents. It's so hopeful and happy, a brilliant contrast to their blood-covered faces and shrieks of horror.

Astonishingly, "Heavenly Creatures" presages "Fight Club" in some ways. The plot of both is propelled by a lonely outcast with no one to turn to. This protagonist is negative towards people in general, and has a disdain toward authority and society. Fantasy plays a large role in this person's life because reality is unappealing. This sullen and disconnected loner bonds with another person, someone who is funny, charming and (seemingly) positive.

Yet a great darkness hides within the friend most likely to pull the protagonist out of their shell. The results are also the same - Norton's and Lynskey's roles become more insular, as well as possessive of and dependent on their new friends. The daydreams serve a more direct role here than in "Fight Club," though.

Most importantly - for two unhappy girls in poor health - fantasy allows a place where everything plays out to the teens' satisfaction. Their slice of heaven has no true pain, loss, infirmity, or failure. The lack of real-world consequences and problems creates a true crutch for our heroines.

There's also a solid message in the violent omens frequently seen by the audience : anyone might wish cartoonish death on difficult figures, be they boss, teacher, or parent; but the imagination can be a dangerous place, and people without any "solid ground" might resort to the real thing. It's not exactly moral, it feels like simple wisdom.

It also circles beautifully back to the fantasy shown at the end. The film has caught up to the beginning, and we've seen their horrible crime. The closing fantasy sequences are, ironically, indicative of the girls' real future: they cannot be on the same ship at the same time, and their separation is slow, unstoppable, and excruciating.

The closing scrawl spells out the aftermath: The girl's incarceration was almost immediate, and their insanity pleas rejected. Even here, the themes present themselves one last time: the girls were "Detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure." This pair was constrained, even in the face of death, by high-handed language and a devotion to distant, ancestral rulers.

Both were held for 5 years before receiving parole. The final words onscreen are the most perfect cap to the doomed nature of the relationship - they were released on the condition that they never meet again. Their real life story really starts to sound like something from their daydreams...

"Heavenly Creatures" casts a spell over you, and it does so with ease. It is just wonderful to see that Peter Jackson's first "mature" film showed the man to be masterful from the get-go. This is a great pic...


  1. Very nice review! I saw this many years ago and liked it a lot at the time. I really ought to watch it again. It would be nice to see it now, too, having recently seen a movie with a similar theme, Therese and Isabelle.

    It's a little slow getting started but very much worth seeing, I think. Very stylish cinematography too.

  2. Thanks! I've never heard of T&I, but I'll watch it on your recommendation.
    Honestly, I started out reviewing "HC" from memory. After watching one youtube clip, I realized that I had to rent it and see it from the start. Totally worth it!

  3. But didn't both women end up living fairly stolid lives afterwards, as completely normal people? Maybe they SHOULD have been separated? Does the movie address the nature of obsession and tunnel-vision? And, also, how dangerous it is to try to get in the way of obsession.

    1. It is true that the women did live well enough after the catastrophic events shown in the film. And I completely agree that the two girls had an unhealthy relationship.

      As to addressing the nature of obsession? Well, the movie is about two people with an unhealthy obsession... but I don't think it addresses the issue by having people analyze the two girls, or connecting to obsessive behavior by other people. The movie more directly deals with the homophobic response of their fellow New Zealanders at the time.

      But you do get a sense of some of the factors that would drive these women to be so involved with each other. It's quite interesting...


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