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‘Heavenly Creatures’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 23, 1994


Peter Jackson
Melanie Lynskey;
Kate Winslet
Under 17 restricted

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You have to adore a movie in which one of the characters refers to Orson Welles as "It."

Based on the infamous 1954 matricide in New Zealand involving two ninth-grade schoolgirls, Peter Jackson's stunning "Heavenly Creatures" tells the story of an uncommonly powerful love. When Pauline and Juliet are together, the wind is filled with butterflies and the trumpet call of Mario Lanza, "the greatest tenor in the whole world!!" Their universe is an exclusive realm of two, existing half in reality where they are ostracized as peculiar, half in fantasy, where they escape to a highly evolved system of dream lovers and romantic alter egos.

The film begins with Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), a miserable child whose mother runs a boardinghouse. In the photo for her class at her proper girls' school in Christchurch, New Zealand, she sticks out amid all the blond hair and proud smiles like a tarantula on a slice of angel

food cake (with apologies to Raymond Chandler). She's the fat one in the back, the disaster, the smudge with the ugly scowl and unruly black curls.

Because of a bone disease that left her with brittle legs, Pauline is unable to share in the sunny, athletic life of her classmates. Then one day her life is changed forever, when a new student named Juliet (Kate Winslet) joins her in her private war against the bores and commoners of Christchurch.

Like Pauline, Juliet thumbs her nose with proud disdain at parochial Christchurch society. But, unlike her new friend, Juliet is not an ugly duckling, but a kind of fairy princess who plucks Pauline from her lily pad, kisses her, and transforms her.

Because she suffers from tuberculosis, Juliet has had to spend almost as much time in the hospital as Pauline, and the girls' common status as invalids sparks a friendship that grows into a murderous passion.

Jackson, who directed and wrote the screenplay, moves through each of these phases with daring and imagination. His camera follows his lovers as they run breathless through the woods before collapsing into each other's arms at the end of the day, spent from the exertions of their special bond.

To his credit, Jackson doesn't patronize this romance as a girlish crush gone ballistic, or pigeonhole it merely as "lesbian." These girls are in love and, clearly, he envies them their abandon and their complete, unguarded commitment to each other. In Jackson's view, theirs is a great romance that, unfortunately, others were not equipped to deal with.

Perhaps, if the world were more enlightened, more flexible, things might not turn out as gruesomely as they do. The problems begin when Juliet's parents begin to see the girls' relationship as "unwholesome." Because of marital problems, her parents are returning to England and plan to send Juliet to South Africa. Rather than be separated, the girls devise an elaborate plan to, as Pauline says it, "moider mother" and escape to Hollywood.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of movies have been made about girlfriends and their unique bond, but I can't think of another one where the topic is addressed more frankly or openly. Though the film's subject is sensationalistic in the extreme, Jackson's style is poetic. He presents Pauline and Juliet, who eventually returns to England, where she becomes an author of mystery novels, as singularly blessed. And he raises the question of whether there is any love purer or more gratifying than this same-sex soul-mating. Because their love ends in murder, it's at least implied that the romance is tainted somehow. Does the fault lie with the girls, or with the cramped morality of the time? Thankfully, this powerful, evocative movie leaves the question wide open.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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