For those who think of Peter Jackson strictly in terms of his epics like the Lord of the Rings films or in terms of his splatter comedies like Dead Alive (1992), his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures may come as a revelation. (It also might serve as a good warm-up for his soon-to-be-released The Lovely Bones, which, the trailer suggests, returns to the style of Heavenly Creatures.) Despite the undeniable merits of Jackson’s other works, Heavenly Creatures strikes me as the best film he has made. Certainly, it’s the most disturbing in its depiction of the real-life drama that culminated in two teenage girls—Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) and Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey)—brutally murdering one of their mothers in 1950s New Zealand. It’s not so much disturbing because of the murder of Honoria Parker (Sarah Peirse)—though the scene itself is very disturbing—but because of Jackson’s very real depiction of the particular chain of events that lead to this act. And those are disturbing because aspects of the events are relevant to any childhood that involves heightened imagination, fantasy worlds, self-dramatization, intense friendships and parents who “don’t understand”—in other words, just about any childhood.
Jackson’s use of film to convey the story is invariably striking—nearly every choice feels just right. Scenes of bitter humor and even subtle charm end on a note of warning (often a look on Pauline’s face caught at just the right moment). The sense of desperation of two lonely girls who have found each other and are determined not to lose what they’ve found permeates the entire film. (The original, truncated U.S. version of the film was less explicit in its depiction of the girls’ lesbianism—an aspect of the story that Hulme, who is now known as British mystery novelist Anne Perry, denies, but which is clearly referred to in Pauline’s diary.) As filmmaking, Heavenly Creatures is stunning, despite the fact that some of the “morphing” effects look a little quaint today, and Jackson’s use of the sound track is equally masterful.