Friday, November 05, 2010

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

New Zealand/Germany, 109 minutes
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Photography: Alun Bollinger
Editor: Jamie Selkirk
Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Peirse, Diana Kent, Clive Merrison, Simon O'Connor, Jed Brophy, Peter Elliott, Gilbert Goldie

A quiet landmark of its kind hiding in plain sight, this is director Peter Jackson's more or less first essay at the mainstream market and an interesting mix of a lot of the elements he has always been preoccupied with: fantasy, horror, and a swooning, almost drunken, embrace of the alluring surface details of adolescent life, which eventually open to reveal a careering maw of terror. It's also more or less Kate Winslet's first movie (complete with "introducing" in the opening credits, which also attaches to her co-star Melanie Lynskey, who matches well with her here even if she hasn't enjoyed the same stellar arc to her career since). Set in 1950s New Zealand, and based on a true story, it traces the path of an intense friendship between two lonely adolescent girls, Juliet Hulme (played by Winslet)—who interestingly went on to become a well-known mystery writer, Anne Perry—and Pauline Parker (played by Lynskey), a friendship that ultimately takes on grotesque and tragic dimensions. Much of the language, in fact, is taken from Parker's diaries of the time. They are an oddly matched pair, crossing class lines. Juliet suffers from tuberculosis and a peripatetic English family (her father is an academic) all too willing to leave her behind "for the good of her health." Pauline comes from a lower-middle-class New Zealand family and is all too aware of, and ashamed of, her mean origins. From the beginning, opening on a lengthy foreshadowing of the final scene that nonetheless hardly prepares us for it, the action and momentum here is swirling, dizzying, headlong. It's exuberant, pulsing with adolescent energy, staying on the point of view of the two girls. The camera echoes this dynamic, perpetually restless and roaming, making the action feel supercharged every step of the way. At first, Juliet and Pauline share an obsession with the opera cum pop singer Mario Lanza, a particularly amusing abhorrence of Orson Welles (who they refer to as "It"), and fairy-tale-like fantasies of the British royal family. In the private world they construct, they set themselves to creating novels and pictures and elaborate if incoherent backstories of their romantic adventures. As the fantasies of the girls become more intense so does their presentation here, with unreal radioactive glowing colors, landscapes that warp and shift, and eventually animated clay figures who act out the roles imagined for them. Between Juliet's condition and some sexual misbehavior on the part of Pauline with an unpleasant boarder (adroitly done), the parents of both are soon concerned and stepping in to try and cool the ardor between them, which of course only serves to fire them further. The parents are fascinating and affecting characters, particularly Pauline's. Eventually the girls set themselves to a horrific plan to liberate themselves from these parental oppressors, and as the film shifts into that final, closing sequence, the swooning fantasy approach falls away and is replaced by something that's almost verite, delivering a payoff that's shocking, disturbing, and unforgettable.

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