movie film review | chris tookey

Heavenly Creatures

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  Heavenly Creatures Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
8.40 /10
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Written by: Peter Jackson, Frances Walsh

Released: 1994
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: New Zealand
Length: 99


Two teenage girls (Kate Winslet, Melanie Lynskey) commit a seemingly senseless murder.

Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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In 1954, respectable, buttoned-down New Zealand was shocked by a horrible murder - one of those landmark events , like the trial of O.J. Simpson in America or the James Bulger case in Britain, which makes an entire nation take stock of itself. Two outwardly ordinary 15 year-old schoolgirls - one English, one a New Zealander - were put on trial for battering the Kiwi girl's mother to death. Their crime was all the more senseless, since the victim was a mild, caring woman who had never done her daughter any harm.
The press searched for some glib, copycat explanation for their crime. But the diaries of the New Zealand girl revealed no media influences more sinister than crushes on Mario Lanza, Orson Welles and James Mason. Nor did the girls appear to be mad. The diaries revealed a strong physical relationship between the girls, and a shared fantasy world inhabited by princesses, unicorns and chivalrous (if murderous) princes.
In most other ways, the girls appeared normal, except in the area of art and creative writing, where they were exceptionally talented and imaginative. Most damningly for their lawyers' plea of insanity, the diaries revealed the murder to have been premeditated. "Our main idea for the day," ran one matter-of-fact entry, "was to murder mother. We decided to use a rock in a stocking."
The girls were duly imprisoned; but youth and good behaviour ensured that they were released within five years, on condition they never saw one another again. Neither girl re-offended. One has gone on - under the name of Anne Perry - to become a respected crime novelist, and now lives in Scotland.
It's a fascinating story, but the stuff of which lurid exploitation movies are often made. And writer-director Peter Jackson has previously been responsible for Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Braindead, three of the most puerile and revolting films of all time.
Astonishingly, under the influence perhaps of his co-writer Frances Walsh, Jackson has turned out a film unrecognizable from the rest of his oeuvre - mature, sensitive and profound.
The film establishes a realistic picture of a society not dissimilar from Britain in the same period. Virtually every scene has been shot where it actually took place; and, since the script quotes verbatim from the diaries, it has the power and authenticity of documentary.
It is magnificently acted by the entire cast, including such familiar British actors as Clive Merrison; and the two leading performances are stunning.
17 year-old Kate Winslet, who played Pandora in the TV series Adrian Mole, is wonderfully touching as the bright, attractive English girl, afflicted by TB, and uncertain if her professional-class parents care either for her or each other.
Just as much of a revelation is 15 year-old New Zealander Melanie Lynskey, a first-time actress, as a dumpy working-class girl first in awe of her more sophisticated friend, then in love with her. Increasingly isolated by feelings of being misunderstood, she retreats ever further into fantasy, ultimately transferring all her guilt and shame on to her hapless, harmless mother.
Heaven knows whether this film really tells the truth, but it is remarkably persuasive at making sense of a seemingly senseless crime. It neither glamorizes nor whitewashes the girls. The murder is portrayed (with commendable restraint and brevity) as a horrific, irrational, yet understandable act.
The film is often funny about the stiff, ultra-conventional nature of New Zealand at the time, but it does not take the easy, over-familiar route of blaming Society, or Emotional Repression, or Bad Parents. Instead, it explores the dark side of the girls' imagination with a nightmarish intensity unseen in the cinema since David Lynch's Blue Velvet.
This is a splendidly unconventional "coming of age" story - depicting adolescence in immediately recognizable terms, as a hormonal and psychological battleground. And it succeeds in showing how two apparently "normal" individuals can merge to become an abnormal entity, collectively insane and capable of terrible savagery. Canine psychologists might call this the "pack" mentality; but no one looking at the history of the twentieth century can doubt that humans suffer from it too.
Amusingly and intelligently scripted, this is a powerful film on a serious topic - and brilliantly crafted. Perhaps Alun Bollinger's camerawork is over-obtrusive at times, but much of it has a strange, dreamlike clarity. The special effects - especially the evocation of the girls' cod-mediaeval fantasy world - are amazingly impressive for a low-budget production.
This is not a movie for those who watch films only for entertainment or stories with a clear and conventional morality. But if you're interested in seeing one of the most unusual and gripping films of the 90s, I would advise you to put this at the top of your list of films to see.

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