At one time Peter Jackson was not a household name. Neither was Kate Winslet. Watching them both work in Heavenly Creatures puts a little pressure on this odd film based on a true story about the tragic friendship of two teenage girls in New Zealand. Pauline and Juliet inhabit an outsider world of magic and romance of their own devising, like so many other young girls I know (including myself, at one time) who, for one reason or another, don’t quite merge with the herd. In this film we watch the girls get entirely too caught up in their world, and each other, with dramatic consequences.
Without (hopefully) giving too much away, the film is made both easier and more difficult to deal with by the use of real people. Much of Pauline’s diary is used word for word in the voiceovers, and so the story is constrained somewhat by what actually happened. On the other hand, it is the kind of story I would have scoffed at had I been asked to consider it "realistic" fiction. This way, I am forced to believe.
Jackson’s directing plays with the dichotomy of real life and fantasy, though both are nearly always shown through the girls’ eyes. One problem with watching the film now is Winslet’s stardom, which makes us think (erroneously) that Juliet is the protagonist. This is a frustrating point of view, because Juliet’s actions are the less motivated and thought out; it is Pauline’s journal we have access to, and her mind we must attempt to understand, however bizarre her motivations appear. Jackson, too, provides some directorial distraction. He’s like a newly-graduated film student, overeager to show off what he can do. His techniques are varied and interesting, but do not always serve the plot or the themes. Towards the end of the film we are subjected to numerous shots of various clocks and watches as time progresses. This is fine if we, the audience, have been given a deadline; but a ridiculous attempt at wratcheting up tension if we’re not sure why 11:05 should mean anything to us. Jackson also tends to move too quickly past things that we might want to linger on, like peoples’ reactions to appalling suggestions. He tends to cut right to the next scene. That said, there are some beautiful images in this film, and a lovely depiction of love between two girls, despite the film’s tacit equation of homosexuality and mental instability.
Anne Perry, author and assumed name of the real Juliet, has stated that there was not a hint of the homoerotic in her relationship with Pauline. She has also said that she does not believe movies should be made about living people. For her sake, I agree. For my sake, as a moviegoer, I’m glad this film exists. There is enough here, around the flashy editing and some histrionic acting, to make a remarkably watchable gem of a film. It's a shame that there are real people who are impacted by it.