The cinema of murder is a twisted universe. Add family to the mix and this depiction of real-life crime dips into dementia.
From Terence Malick’s superbly directed “Badlands” to the sordid trio of television miniseries made about Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher, movies about family murder (and attempted murder) range the spectrum of quality.
Yet all of them, even the worst - maybe especially the worst - tend to hold our attention. Why else would we care so much about an aging football player-turned-actor but for the allegation that he filleted his exwife and a friend on the doorstep of her Brentwood townhouse?
It is exactly this sense of morbidity that fuels our interest in such films as Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures.” Given the based-in-fact story he tells - that of two New Zealand teenage girls who, in the early 1950s, murdered one of their mothers - the film should have a ready audience.
Yet what makes “Heavenly Creatures” such a triumph is that Jackson goes far beyond the crime’s more lurid aspects. He uses the power of cinema to try and explain how such a terrible thing might occur.
Set in the years 1952-54, “Heavenly Creatures” is an exploration of a time and place of repression. It represents an era when young women in particular wielded little power.
Jackson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Frances Walsh, has researched the case well. Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) was a shy New Zealand 14-year-old when she met outgoing, English-born Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet). An example of opposites attracting, the two were an instant match.
Yet despite their contrasting demeanors, the two girls had much in common. Both had been hospitalized as children: Pauline for a bone problem, Juliet for a lung condition that turned into tuberculosis. Both had parents who did not understand them (and, in Juliet’s case, didn’t seem to care much for her anyway).
And the final aspect to their relationship, which ultimately helped twist it toward tragedy, was their penchant for fantasy. In Jackson’s film, the two girls create something they call “the Fourth World.” This world figures prominently both in the letters that the girls write to each other and in Pauline’s diary.
Pauline’s diary entries became the evidence the police used to arrest the girls for murder. In them, Pauline documented their descent into a dual psychosis where the parents, especially Pauline’s mother, were seen as the cause of all their pain.
“The next time I write in this diary, mother will be dead,” Pauline wrote. “How odd - yet how pleasing.”
Jackson never attempts to explain away the crime. In fact, the performance he pulls out of Sarah Peirse as the murdered woman makes her death seem even more horrifying. For of all the parents, she seems to be the least self-obsessed.
What he strives to do is see the world through the girls’ eyes. Jackson contrasts the stultifying atmosphere of Pauline and Juliet’s school, where the girls are bullied by black-robed martinets, to their breathless play indoors and out. With the aid of cinematographer Alun Bollinger, he uses hand-held camerawork to affect the exuberant feeling of that play (one incredible shot literally takes us inside a sand castle).
And everything is underscored by Peter Dasent’s music. From Mario Lanza’s opera voice to the upbeat pop tunes of the ‘50s, Dasent’s music feels as over-hormoned as the girls themselves seem.
In the end, Jackson acts the responsible journalist. He sets up the situation but points no fingers. Yes, Juliet’s parents are insensitive. Yes, Pauline is unhappy to the point of potential suicide. Yes, the psychology of the day had no way of even understanding the pressures on these girls much less how to treat them.
But none of this is offered as an excuse for murder. Jackson has said that the story of Pauline and Juliet could be summed up in three words: innocence, imagination, obsession.
As such, he said, it is “a murder story about love, a murder story with no villains.”
xxxx “Heavenly Creatures” Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Cast: Directed and co-written by Peter Jackson, and starring Melanie Lynskey, and Kate Winslet. Running time: 99 minutes Rating: R
Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Heavenly Creatures:” Glenn Lovell/San Jose Mercury News: It could have been just another TV docudrama or tabloid-news re-enactment. Instead, “Heavenly Creatures,” the story of real-life New Zealand murderers Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, unsettles and excites in ways that make us both stunned observer and sympathetic accessory. Janet Maslin/New York Times: Stylish and eerily compelling before it overplays its campy excesses, “Heavenly Creatures” does have a lot to recommend it. Soren Andersen/McClatchy News Service: “Heavenly Creatures” is a high-pitched wail of adolescent joy and anguish. Henry Sheehan/Orange County Register: “Heavenly Creatures,” then, from New Zealand writer-director Peter Jackson, moves along different tracks from the normal crime thriller. Rather than deal with crime and punishment, it concerns itself solely with motives and states of mind, specifically those of dowdy Pauline Parker and sophisticated Juliet Hulme, who one sunny day in 1954 committed matricide with a blunt object.