A leap into the dark

Adam Mars-Jones reviews Heavenly Creatures, a poetic portrait of two te enagers whose fantasies led to matricide

Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures is a striking addition to the cinema of folie a deux, the madness for two that is either a perversion of true love or its purest manifestation, depending on your point of view.

Two teenagers in the New Zealand of the 1950s meet at a school whose Latin motto promises Wisdom and Truth, and discover instead, in what became a notorious case, fantasy and derangement.

The story of this disastrous relationship is that of the dreamer out-dreamed. In the beginning it is Juliet (Kate Winslet), pretty, blonde, assured, who is the dominant figure. She is English for a start, which would cut ice in Auckland, let alone in cringing and self-consciously anglophile Christchurch. She has travelled, she speaks idiomatic French, and she has, with her weak lungs, the crowning glamour of the invalid.

It is Juliet who first does drawings of an imaginary medieval kingdom, who rejects Christianity in favour of a heaven on earth called the Fourth World, accessible only to the super-intelligent, who chooses the saints and prescribes the rituals of a new religion. In all this, dumpy Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) is her acolyte, but her need for escape is the greater and she soon becomes the driving force of the fantasy.

Jackson's intelligent screenplay shows that what ended in madness and murder had at least some of its roots in social climbing. Pauline is embarrassed by her background - her parents take in paying guests - and in the beginning is only trying to acquire the manners of a better class of person. We see her copying the gracious mouth-dabbing action of Juliet's lovely mother at table, which compares so favourably with her own mother's clumsy napkin-swipe. Her highest approach to worldy happiness is when Juliet's mother brushes her hair for her. Lynskey's face has one of its rare releases from truculence in this moment of intimacy and acceptance. She wrinkles her nose with a cat's pleasure in grooming.

In the early part of the story, Jackson's camera surprisingly often shows us the point of view of characters not in themselves sympathetic but who don't see the heroines as they see themselves. We share the preposterous French teacher's wince as her slap-dash use of the subjunctive is corrected by a pupil, and it's perfectly plain to us that Juliet is supercilious and insufferable. When Pauline's father mimes to her beloved Mario Lanza records with a fish for a microphone, he is mocking her obsession but also trying to connect with her on the level of play, and her rejection of him is arbitrary. Perhaps it was the fish that was his mistake (he is a fishmonger). His crime in his daughter's eyes is that he can never get the smell of reality off his fingers.

The distinctive tone of Heavenly Creatures comes from a strange sort of seriousness about the past. Jackson recreates the decade before his birth both on the level of decor (down to the posters urging Eat Fruit Daily with their clumsy collage of fruit making up the shape of a kiwi) and of social ritual - schoolgirls on their backs raising their legs alternately in the 1950s version of going for the burn.

But he is most interested in the poverty of the culture, which deprives even those who seek to reject it and to live in their own sufficient imaginations. When called upon to model for life classes, the schoolgirls in the heroines' form strike poses thatexpress nothing but a dim notion of the "artistic". Juliet and Pauline are essentially no different, and though the film's special effects go all out to enter the girls' fantasy world, their escapes always have an edge of claustrophobia. (One of Jackson's few mistakes is to make the Fourth World look like a kitsch utopia from a Pierre and Gilles photograph.)

It's as if some fatal moderation in the New Zealand landscape, with its dusty greens and dull blues, makes even its rebel angels tame. Even Cashmere turns out to be a suburban bus destination. Pauline's diary entries (which are authentic) are full of statements that are both melodramatic and strangely flat ("the shock was too great to have penetrated my mind"). The inhabitants of the imaginary kingdom of Borovnia are the greenish colour of Plasticine, with a partial exception being made for the Mario Lanza figure, who has a pinky tinge.

The first sentence that Pauline writes in her 1953 diary is particularly revealing of the fantasies of power underlying her shyness: her New Year's resolution is to be more lenient with other people. Having projected herself into Juliet's family, where she imagines all compensation is to be found, she has nowhere to go when that fantasy is shown up. Juliet's parents turn out to have no real interest in her - they plan a long trip to Europe on their own and go ahead with it even when she gets TB. Simpering, insincere Mummy and vague jaunty Daddy tell her that four months will fly by in no time. Then, after their return, it emerges that Juliet's mother has been putting rather more energy into her job as a marriage guidance counsellor than was called for,and has been consoling one man in particular.

Even towards the end of the film, Jackson does not stop mocking his heroines as well as putting their case. On the day of the Happy Event, as she calls it, the day when she and Juliet will revenge themselves on the least inadequate parent either of them has, Pauline refers to all the help she gives her mother with the cleaning. But what the camera shows is a sulky girl flapping feebly at the clock on the mantelpiece with a duster.

As the story moves towards its climax, Jackson puts a lot of emphasis on clocks, on the irrevocability of fate and time. But in his most daring and distinctive sequence, which gives him some claim to be considered a poet of the cinema, he goes in the opposite direction, somehow trying to take the girls out of time immediately before they perform their irreparable act. This is not simply a suspense technique: the music is radiant rather than ominous and the moment expands and expands, acquiring a magic beyond anything the girls could dream of, as Juliet wrings her hands even before they have blood on them, and Pauline trudges towards violence in a child's ungainly sandals and black socks.

n On release from Friday

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