Set in the 1950s in a small New Zealand town, Heavenly Creatures centers on two young girls, both of whom are from different walks of life. The first is Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), whose family is working class and makes money from renting out spare bedrooms. Second, we have Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), who has traveled around the world, and whose father is a professor.
They share a common past: Both of the girls have had crippling illnesses. One had a bone problem, the other had tuberculosis. After they meet, the bond instantly. They spend gym class (or perhaps recess) reading books, they run around in the forest, and eventually have their minds enter a magical land called the “Fourth World,” which is also where they believe they will go when they inevitably die. The girls become the best of friends — so friendly with one another that their parents all worry that they might be homosexual, which in the 1950s was the worst form of “mental illness.”
There isn’t really much of a plot. Different events happen, and they have an effect on the girls, but for the most part, this is a story about two girls, their friendship, and the desire for them to stay together, overcoming circumstances that are seemingly beyond their control. The film is based on true events, but if you don’t already know what Heavenly Creatures is based on, I’m not going to tell you. I’d rather leave the ending a surprise, because it very well could be shocking to you, and that’s a feeling I’d prefer not to ruin, even if you can’t exactly “spoil” something that’s taken place in real life.
After Heavenly Creatures ended, I was shocked to find out that it wasn’t over two hours in length. When there isn’t much of a plot to speak of, the relationship between the two characters has to drive the story. Despite this, the film separates them too frequently and for stretches that go on for too long to have that being the sole interesting point. The second act, as a result, feels very long. Not much happens, and the girls spend a lot of time apart.
I think that the main reason I didn’t have a great time with Heavenly Creatures was because of the way that the two lead characters are written. While the film purports to be based on diaries written by one of the girls, a large section also appeared to be made up, more specifically the parts either before the diary was acquired and also those not mentioned (which seem to be quite a lot). It’s in these moments when we learn about the girls, but what we find out isn’t all that great.
See, these are two self-obsessed young women, neither acting rationally or in any way relatable. They will go to whatever lengths they want to get what they want, but never appear to care or pay much attention to anyone around them. As a result, pretty much everyone not named “Pauline” or “Juliet” are deemed enemies, as we are witnessing things from their perspectives. With that said, as an objective outsider, we see things differently, and are aware that people like their parents aren’t always out to get them.
This puts the audience in a weird position, one that we’re not really used to be put into. We’re supposed to be empathizing with the girls — and to be fair, the film does do some of this correctly — but because of the way they’re presented, we have difficulty with this. Add in the “us against the world” mentality, and we’re thrown for a loop. Rationally, we shouldn’t be cheering for the girls, but our heart is invested enough that it might win that battle. We’re torn and a little thrown off by the film. This makes it difficult to enjoy, and I was originally down on it because of this.
However, as I noted, since your heart’s in the film, you might just find it in you to see things from the girls’ perspective and ignore rational (and sane) thought, instead focusing on what it might be like to be as close-minded as they are. When a situation presents itself that might tear them away from one another, you hope they overcome it not because it would be best for everyone — probably the opposite, in fact — but because you want to see them happy. The performances given by Winslet and Lynskey help, but the way they’re presented to us in contrast to most protagonists is the real key.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Peter Jackson film without either fantasy or blood (or both). True to form, there are a few scenes with copious amounts of blood, as well as some sequences of fantasy when the girls go to the aforementioned Fourth World. It’s here where they meet clay people, enter different personas, and perform actions that can’t take place in the real world. And there is blood. There has to be blood.
Heavenly Creatures is an ambitious work, even if it’s not entirely successful. The position it puts the audience in is difficult to make work, and while I think it will succeed for those who give it a lot of attention, more casual moviegoers will be put off and will not enjoy the film as a result. It’s a life film with good performances and some fantasy, but it’s mostly a story about two girls and their addiction, for better or worse, to one another. It’s a good film that will divide audiences and reward second viewings.