Heavenly Creatures is a film that succeeds because of how well it immerses us in the world its characters live in. Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) are adolescent girls who meet at school in 1950s New Zealand and develop a mutually dependent bond that concerns their respective parents. Pauline is sullen, keeps her head down, seems to be a good student but is alienated from those around her. Juliet, a British transfer student, is her opposite: she stands tall, speaks up, corrects their teacher insolently. There's an immediate grin of admiration in Pauline when she watches Juliet assert herself.
Juliet is the new girl, and Pauline doesn't seem to have many friends to speak of, so they become a pair almost by default, but they quickly become inseparable. There's a hint of romance in their relationship, which their families pick up on before they even do. They're probably too young to understand what obsessive love looks like, or why it's unhealthy, or why anyone objects. Of greatest concern is that they're two women, but homosexuality is incidental to what makes the pair truly disturbing – that past a certain point the line between reality and fantasy blurs, and the consequences of their actions cease to matter as long as they can be together.
This is one of the early films by director Peter Jackson, who of course would go on to make the Lord of the Rings films and King Kong. Those films showed more explicitly fantastical worlds than this, but the imaginary retreats for Pauline and Juliet are just as vivid. With sweeping camera movements, an intense score, and a bold color palette, he evokes the heightened state of their relationship. Pleasures and impulses are exaggerated, pain bonds them inextricably, and as they conceive a fantasy novel together they begin to live through their characters. Pauline becomes King Charles and Juliet becomes Queen Deborah, and in one scene they enact the birth of their son, the Prince. They're processing their sexual and emotional yearnings through the comforting filter of fiction.
These fantasies are manifested visually. The clay figures they create for their characters grow to life-size, and they interact in a world not just of whimsy but of surprising violence. Jackson would eventually become remarkably skilled at integrating CGI visual effects into his stories, but the clay costume and makeup effects used here are no less effective. The figures' mouths move awkwardly, and their eyes are empty, soulless spaces. This kingdom is a joyous refuge for the girls, but we can sense the danger in it. They have drifted so far from the reality of their lives that when they look back at it it seems remote and unfamiliar.
But like a more recent film, Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, the impact of the fantasy scenes would be greatly diminished without the contrast of an equally compelling exterior world, an objective reality encroaching upon the carefully constructed illusion. In this film, Jackson establishes the real world as full of complex family relationships that are often mysterious to us because they're mysterious to the girls. Consider Juliet's parents, a pair of distant intellectuals, possibly estranged from each other, and not especially close to their daughter either. She was sick as a young girl and she was sent away for the good of their health. She falls ill again, this time with tuberculosis, and her parents skip town for four months on a previously planned trip – also, they say, for the good of her health. It's the anguished performance of Winslet that conveys just how faraway her parents seem to her, how clinical in their treatment of their daughter, how little they seem to value affection.
Pauline's mother, Honora (Sarah Peirse), is one of the film's most important characters. She's terribly afraid that her daughter is becoming a lesbian, but she's not portrayed as a hateful bigot. Homosexuality is something she's told about by a psychiatrist with grave concern in his voice, and she regards it the way another parent might regard tuberculosis, as a threat to her daughter's well-being. So even though Honora is a repressive force in her daughter's life, we feel sympathy for her. We recognize genuine love from her that Pauline can't see, and this disconnect is what gives the final third of the film its emotional power.
This was the first film for both Lynskey and Winslet, and though Winslet has become a major movie star, Lynskey has continued to work regularly as a character actress in film and television, including prominent roles in Up in the Air, Away We Go, and this year's Win Win. She and Winslet give equally strong performances here, but also very different ones. Though Juliet seems self-confident at first, she seems wayward and brittle, but Lynskey gives Pauline an increasing determination, a steely resolve that gets darker and scarier as it progresses. Pauline is too young, too naïve, and too hopelessly in love to understand that the story she's writing for herself isn't a romance but a tragedy.
Watch a trailer for the movie here: