This review contains spoilers.
What makes good kids turn bad? Bad parenting? Degenerate youth culture? This isn’t just a 21st-century debate: Peter Jackson’s 1950s-set film Heavenly Creatures (1994) tells the true story of a teenage girl named Pauline who murders her mother with the help of her best friend Juliette (Kate Winslet, in her debut film role). The title sequence underlines this incongruity, opening with archive travelogue footage of Christchurch, New Zealand, while a cheerful voice-over narrator identifies places of learning and worship, streets and parks, where citizens go about their perfect lives. The screaming begins just before the narration ends, and there is a switch to a point-of-view shot of the protagonists running through a forest. The girls emerge, covered in blood, and Pauline cries, ‘It’s Mummy! She’s terribly hurt’.
Although the film opens with a flash-forward to its ending, for viewers who don’t know the story behind the film there are few clues to identify the girls as potential murderers. Pauline’s lower-middle-class family must take in lodgers to make ends meet, but her parents are loving and she seems well-adjusted. Juliette’s parents are less attached to her: affluent professionals, they are happy to leave her alone for months at a time, even while she is recuperating from chronic lung problems. If you had to guess which of the girls’ mothers had retribution coming to her, you would expect it to be Juliette’s flighty, glamorous ‘Mummy’, not Pauline’s reliable, careworn one.
After the film’s opening, the only foreshadowing of violence is in the girls’ elaborate fantasy world. Through dress-up, letters, stories, and sculpture, they create and inhabit the characters of a mediaeval royal family, complete with a bloodthirsty wayward son. This fantasy world appears to seep into reality when Pauline encounters adults who annoy her: she imagines them being impaled or sliced in two by one of the clay figurines come to life. There are also several scenes in the film that literally recreate the world through the girls’ eyes, complete with castles, unicorns and giant butterflies.
Though it makes sense in light of Peter Jackson’s later fantastic bent as director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, at the time it may have seemed strange to infuse a true story with so much of the imaginary. As Pauline’s own diaries sealed the murder case against her, it is fitting that the girls’ inner world should form a central part of the film. Heavenly Creatures is arguably more enjoyable precisely because none of it takes place in a courtroom. Instead, the film focuses on its compelling portrait of adolescence, showing the girls as they are pulled by childish energy and imagination on the one hand and, on the other, increasing autonomy and sexual desire.
Why did a normal transition lead to tragedy in this case? The parents’ squeamish response to their daughters’ sexuality? The girls’ solipsistic impulsiveness? The film sympathises with every character, but provides no clear answers.