Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey deliver outstanding performances in Heavenly Creatures, and both went on to win numerous awards for their portrayals of Juliet and Pauline. Winslet (best known for Titanic) does an incredible job of playing the charismatic and feverishly imaginative Juliet, who eventually grew up to become the bestselling mystery novelist Anne Perry. Lynskey (Sweet Home Alabama, Ever After) is perfectly cast as Pauline, who changes from a quiet and peaceful girl to a glowering and angry one over the course of the film.
Peter Jackson, who is best known for his monumental Lord of the Rings trilogy, shows a hint of his taste for violence and special effects in the smaller-scale Heavenly Creatures, his first major film. The scenes of the murder are so intimate and awful that itâ€™s painful to watch, and while this scene is brief in comparison to the numerous death scenes in Lord of the Rings, it has the same sickening, physical feel. Jackson also employs makeup in a unique way by covering the extras who play the characters from the girlsâ€™ imaginary land of Borovnia from head to toe in clay. This results in strangely blank-looking faces sculpted out of dark gray clayâ€”a very creepy look that is heightened by the Frankenstein-like way these people move.
Heavenly Creatures ends with the violent, bloody moment of Honora Rieperâ€™s murder; it doesnâ€™t delve into the months that followed in which the girlsâ€™ friendship was dissected in court. That means it also avoids an extended examination of whether or not the girls were lesbiansâ€”which is both good and bad.
While the film doesnâ€™t openly state that the girls are lesbiansâ€”in fact, all of the adults except for the psychiatrist avoid using the term â€œhomosexualâ€â€”it clearly implies that Pauline and Juliet had a sexual relationship. This is suggested most blatantly by the scene in which the two girls reenact the ways they imagine the characters in Borovnia would make love. The two girls, who are lying in bed together, proceed to kiss each other and eventually embrace each other naked, obviously suggesting that they had sex. While the build-up to this scene makes their intense interest in each other seem a bit manic and disturbing, the love scene itself is quite sweet.
But if the love scene can be counted as a relatively positive portrayal of lesbianism, the rest of the film tends to make the girlsâ€™ love for each other appear psychotic. Much of this stems from the context of the 1950s when the story takes place. All of the adults view homosexuality as a mental illness (with the possible exception of Julietâ€™s mother, who doesnâ€™t seem to have much of an interest in the matter), and homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness at that time. The distaste and revulsion expressed by Dr. Hulme and Mrs. Rieper about homosexuality are probably representative of the ways most parents would have reacted in 1954 when confronted with the possibility that their children were lesbians.
Historical accuracy is all well and good, but it just seems unfortunate that Heavenly Creatures, which is a very well-done film, is yet another movie about killer lesbians. There are movies based in real-life events, like Boys Donâ€™t Cry, that take a truly tragic story and make something positive out of it. In comparison, the screenplay (written by Peter Jackson and Frances Walsh) fails to humanize the characters of Juliet and Pauline, something that could have been done by continuing the storyline with a lengthier coda in which we learned what happened to the two girls after they were released from prison. (They never saw one another again, and it seems that they both truly felt remorse for their crime.)
It may be that the real events behind Heavenly Creatures were simply not suitable for any kind of positive portrayal of lesbianism, but I canâ€™t help but wish that the girls had been written as a little less mentally disturbed. As it is, watch Heavenly Creatures for excellent acting and direction, but not for its portrayal of lesbianism.