Guest review by Scott Petersen
It’s not very often that a film put chills up and down my spine. That visceral feeling was all over Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, from Jack Nicholson’s chilling and psychotic performance to the Big Wheel point-of-view shots in the hallways. For me, that’s the raison d’êtré, the basis for spending two hours in a dark auditorium watching images flicker on a rectangular screen. That feeling is simply your body’s response, on a purely instinctual level, to seeing a shot or a scene that is perfectly executed. You may not know a thing about lighting or story structure or acting, but you recognize the filmmakers’ skill in presenting the narrative. And now with Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures, we have another reason to celebrate film and that feeling.
Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) is an invisible ugly duck of a New Zealand schoolgirl who has a passion for opera singer Mario Lanza. Juliet (Kate Winslet) is the whimsical and creative new girl at the school who delights in embarrassing the stuffy schoolmarm. As with many friends, each has a quality the other values: for Pauline, it’s Juliet’s gregarious personality, while Juliet values Pauline’s undying loyalty. Of course, it is precisely those characteristics that undermine the pair’s friendship and their relationship with their parents.
As the two become closer, their behavior takes a spooky turn inward as they create a fantasy world filled with knights, castles, and sword fights. In this world, as opposed to real life, they win any and all conflicts. Both sets of parents notice the pair getting a little too close, and, as a consequence, Juliet’s parents decide to move out of the country. Of course, both are crushed and must devise a plan to save their friendship. This is where the frightening obsession comes into play.
In the United States, most based-on-fact films end up as really bad – or is that really good – television movies (the theatrically-released River’s Edge notwithstanding) in the vein of Nancy vs. Tonya or Menendez Knows Best. However, Heavenly Creatures avoids the obvious sensationalized traps. Jackson does use, in voice-over, the actual text from Pauline’s diary, adding a taste of realism that sucks the viewer into Pauline’s world. As with most of the celebrated crimes of the past few years, you can’t write it better than real life. It’s just not as compelling.