After Jane Campion . . .

PETER JACKSON'S Heavenly Creatures (18) is a film that slips the surly bonds of genre. It's a murder story without a mystery, a romance that lacks a single clinch, an airy fantasy that ends in wrenching brutality. With wit and daring, Jackson whisks us around two adolescent girls' minds, on a guided tour of their most garish fantasies and deluded, delirious dreams. Imagination is both the film's subject, and its strength.

It opens deceptively, a stiff newsreel planting us in wholesome 1950s New Zealand. Here, in Christchurch, a crime took place that became as notorious as the Moors murders were in 1960s Britain. The killing of Honora Parker (Sarah Peirse) by her teenage daughter Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Pauline's friend Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) destroyed their society's sense of its own and its children's innocence. Starting and ending with the murder, the film is not a whodunnit, not even a whydunnit, as the motive - the girls' fear of separation - becomes clear early on. Most murders, Jackson realises, are as uncomplicated as the brick to the head that did for Mrs Parker. The real mystery lies in the people who commit them.

In Parker and Hulme, Jackson and his fine debutante actresses have created a rich and strange double act. Someone in the film refers to the girls as Laurel and Hardy, and you see the point. Parker, whose breathless diaries punctuate the film, is squat, dark and permanently embattled; she seems to wear a frown as part of her school uniform. Hulme is blonde, willowy and ethereally oblivious to the real world. But the girls are a lot smarter than Stan and Ollie. We first see Hulme as a precociously cheeky new kid in class (just in from England), correcting teacher's use of the French subjunctive. This delights Paul-ine, under whose gauche exterior a rebellious intelligence quivers to be set free. When Juliet incorporates a portrait of Mario Lanza - the girls' joint "pash" - into her dreary art-class assignment, a bond is formed.

Together they create their own fantasy kingdom, where medieval knights chase damsels, and the girls get the chance to act out swoony day-dreams of courtship and childbirth. Jackson uses special effects to bring this Eden to life. Terminator-style morphing is used to create topi-arised lawns out of nothing. White unicorns gambol lazily, while giant butterflies flutter above them. Clay knights come to life, often with the features of the girls' idols. Bright kids lost in their own realm are nothing new: the girls' land of Borovnia resembles the Mortmere that Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward created at school. What is startling is how the girls' fantasy escalates with their desperation. As parental misgivings encroach, they retreat into ever wilder fantasies: Hollywood stardom, madness, and finally murder - or, as Pauline puts it, "moider". Her childish relish is a refuge from reality.

Beside this fantasy world, Jackson places a satirical portrait of New Zealand at the time - a stifled place, just beginning to loosen the collar of colonialism. Jackson mocks Christchurch's primness next to the girls' unbuttoned abandon (literally unbuttoned when they frolic in their underwear through the woods). Their headmistress is a ringer for Barbara Woodhouse, down to the imperious "sit" with which she starts assembly. The girls' parents too are locked within their own unthinking mores. There is a lovely cameo from Clive Merrison as Juliet's sad, self-absorbed father, an academic. He has tea with Pauline's parents, and gropes at euphemisms with which to warn the Parkers about the girls' relationship ("unhealthy . . . unwholesome . . . wayward").

The movie itself is subtler and more sensitive in its suggestions of lesbianism. First and foremost this is a friendship - sweet and pure, for all the bitterness of its fruit. But there is no denial of physical attraction, and even a suggestion, in a diary entry near the end, of consummation: "We have learnt the peace of the thing called bliss, the joy of the thing called sin." Jackson's is a much less prejudiced picture than Hitchcock's view of his bosom-buddie murderers in Rope, whose homosexuality (never quite stated) came with the familiar slurs attached - furtiveness, neurosis and fascism. Equally, Heavenly Creatures does not distort its story into gay propaganda, in the manner of Tom Kalin's stylish study of the Rope case, Swoon.

By sympathising with all his characters, Jackson brings off an affecting finale. The tension and savagery of the murder are almost unbearable, but so is the confusion of our feelings. Paul-ine's mother has been shown to be a sincere, if limited, woman, in despair at a child who seems to have outgrown her parents. She is not the monster that the girls have created in their minds. Jackson takes us to the brink in our identification with the girls, and we watch in horror as they go beyond it. It is an exemplary scene of violence, the more powerful for all that has gone before.

Peter Jackson used to be known for horror movies, such as the phenomenally disgusting Braindead (1992). In retrospect, you can see in them some embryonic social satire. Heavenly Creatures, though, is a giant leap forward, spanning many of the themes of New Zealand's burgeoning cinema: Jane Campion's post-colonialism and insights into female and adolescent desire; Alison (Crush) Maclean's search for the serpent in the native Eden. At times you wonder if Jackson's bouncy insistence on the girl's escapism is too simplistic. But mainly you are caught in the swirl of the film's changing moods. Its integration of euphoric fantasy, high comedy and genuine horror within a single canvas is a rare achievement.

A bottle of Dom Perignon 2265 cartwheels through space at the beginning of Star Trek: Generations (PG), ready to christen the latest Starship Enterprise. On board, alongside the callow new crew, sit some of the greats - notably Captain Kirk (William Shatner), even bulkier and more bouffant- haired than before, and "Scottie" (James Doohan). Before long, thanks to "a mysterious astrological phenomenon", Kirk is meeting Captain Jean- Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) in the 24th century. They converge in "the Nexus", a place where fantasies come true. The writers smartly acknowledge the silliness. When Kirk explains the mission, Picard interrupts: "I take it that the odds are against us and the situation is grave."

Self-parody may be the only course with acting as ropey as Shatner's. Time, or the bigger screen, has taken its toll, and he looks like an orderly next to the commanding Stewart. But there are good special effects, especially when the spaceship runs aground, and an amusing sub-plot involving the cultish Spock-replacement, Data, a feelingless android. After a "feeling chip" is inserted, his new and overdeveloped sense of humour unnervingly converts him from dour computer to laughing policeman. The film has a similar problem. Too many senten- tious insights and lame jokes have been grafted on to the basic yarn.

Gary Sinyor boldly goes where no man has gone before in Solitaire for 2 (15) - into a comic world without jokes. The plot is promising: a romance between Mark Frankel (from Sinyor's Leon the Pig Farmer) and a girl with ESP (Amanda Pays), who finishes other people's sentences. But the writing is limp. We get the payoffs before she does.

Sandra Bernhard continues the trajectory of her film career with Dallas Doll (18): from the giddy heights of The King of Comedy to coronation as The Queen of the Unfunny. In this confused comedy she plays an American down under, inspiring and bedding a whole family. It's wacky and liberated in a mirthless way. Bernhard should audition for Gary Sinyor.

Cinema details: Review, page 66.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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