HEAVENLY CREATURES - DVD review

Jackson plays with paternalistic assumptions about male power and 'the gentler sex'.

 
Eddie
Feng

Miramax, a subsidiary of Buena Vista (the parent company of Buena Vista), has the American distribution rights to Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures". Miramax also happens to own the film rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings". Therefore, Jackson appealed to Harvey and Bob Weinstein first for financing his "LOTR" project. The Weinstein brothers rejected his plan as too risky a financial endeavor, so Jackson took "LOTR" to New Line. The Weinsteins retained gross points as well as executive producer credits of "LOTR", and they have skipped and hopped their way to the bank without having risked anything on their end of the deal. Ironically, "Heavenly Creatures" is the kind of daring material that Disney's core constituents fear while "LOTR" is the kind of bet that Hollywood considers safe.

"Heavenly Creatures" is based on the true story and the diaries of Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynsky, one of the stepsisters in "Ever After"). As a young girl in New Zealand, Rieper developed an intense relationship with transfer student Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet). Believing themselves to be inseparable, the girls murdered Rieper's mother. The police seized Rieper's diaries as evidence of the girls' crime; since it was discovered that Rieper's parents had not been legally joined, she was tried under her mother's maiden name, Parker. Too young to be sentenced to death, the girls were released from prison within five years with the condition that they never meet each other again.

No one really knew what happened to Rieper and Hulme, but the movie revived interest in them. A journalistic search yielded their whereabouts. Today, Rieper resides in England, under a different name, teaching horse-riding. Hulme lives in Scotland, writing novels under the pseudonym of Anne Perry. They had no idea that they were both living in Britain. Hulme spoke out against the film's implication that the girls behaved as lesbians, but Rieper has remained silent concerning her past, preferring to keep past events firmly rooted in memory rather than in everyday life.

Have I just revealed too much about the film, dear reader? Yes and no. Yes, if you care about only Points A and Z, but no, if you care about Points B through Y as well. Even if Rieper and Hulme wrote autobiographies, we would still not know what transpired in their minds during their adolescence in the 1950s. (Autobiographies are notoriously unreliable given that most people are interested in portraying themselves in the best possible light, and severely self-critical words reveal more guilt than reality.) The film attempts to fill in the blanks so that we may better understand how two bored, intelligent-to-a-fault girls came to think that killing one of their mothers could solve their problems. Yet, "Heavenly Creatures" reveals more about the filmmakers than it does about the girls.

Using hints at the seductive mystery inherent in the intimacy of female relationships, Peter Jackson lays bare his perceptions of human psychology. Rumors of Sapphism abound when women hold hands, revealing both society's discomfort with the biological dead-end of same-sex pairings as well as men's selfish desire to see two pairs of breasts rather than one. However, didn't someone say that sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar? In a sense, it almost doesn't matter if the real-life Rieper and Hulme had a homosexual relationship or not--the lesbian angle provides an easy entry into Jackson's fictionalized account, and the director is free to touch upon many other themes that preoccupy his mind.

With frightening conviction, the film details Pauline's conflation of her family and Juliet's. Pauline insinuates herself into the Hulmes' family life, and Mrs. Hulme actually refers to Pauline as "my foster daughter". Both sets of parents pay little attention to the girls' acquaintanceship until signs of homosexuality emerge. Much like the Motion Pictures Ratings Board, the parents turn a blind eye to the girls' violent fictions but worry themselves to no end as Pauline and Juliet discover that Mother Nature activated a few hormones.

Jackson plays with paternalistic assumptions about male power and "the gentler sex". Initially, Juliet assumes the dominant position in the partnership, and Pauline always defers to Juliet's wishes. Yet, Juliet shortens her friend's name to Paul. As the narrative progresses, the girls write a fantasy novel together, and they re-enact scenes/assume identities in such a manner that Pauline plays the man while Juliet plays the woman. In their pretend-world, Pauline is able to be the strong one while Juliet gets to be the girly-girl that she isn't. As the girls sink further and further into their fantasy, they behave more and more like their fictional alter egos, culminating in Pauline taking the lead in plotting her mother's demise. It's always the quiet one, isn't it?

Much has been made of the fantasy sequences in the film, most especially the digital morphs created by WETA (Jackson's own special effects company) and the anthropomorphization of the girls' clay figurines. However, the film is really a psychological portrait of two bored girls with imaginations run amok. For instance, during her first sexual encounter, Pauline thinks about living in Borovnia (the girls' invention), complete with casting her first boy as a hapless bumbler.

There are meta-theatrical nods to the culture of filmmaking. In the film, Juliet shrieks, "Orson Welles! The most hideous man alive!" This could be the filmmakers' playful way of rejecting decades of cineastes prostrating themselves before the altar that is "Citizen Kane".

The best thing about Jackson's approach to the story is that he refuses to be seduced by the girls. Pauline thinks dreadful things about her parents because they limit her contacts with Juliet, but the film always portrays her mother as someone simply caught in a situation beyond her comprehension. The next best thing about the film is Kate Winslet. She delivers the best performance so far in her career in "Heavenly Creatures". Here, Winslet is less self-conscious than in more recent movies such as "Iris" and "Holy Smoke!" (her near-willful choice to act in "non-Hollywood" productions brings out the snob in her rather than her talent). Radiant, mentally agile, and embued with the spirit of a rebellious colt, Winslet captures the beauty and the vulnerability of a visionary on the cusp of realizing her potential.

Video:
Despite the fact that Buena Vista has squeezed the film onto a single-layered disc, the transfer looks as if the project had been shot during the past two years. Looking bright, sharp, and generally clean and clear, the transfer suffers from a slight case of shimmering, a few compression artifacts, some scratches on the print, and the occasional blotchy dark patch of sky. All things considered, I think that the transfer could be used to persuade the casual consumer to join the DVD revolution. Given its plusses, imagine what two DVD layers could've done for the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image?

Audio:
The DVD offers only one audio track--Dolby Digital 2.0 surround English. The track is both pleasant and frustrating. Since the center channel has been matrixed into the front left and right channels, the dialogue is not always intelligible. Therefore, I constantly had to adjust my receiver's volume--dialing it up to hear the actors' voices, dialing it down to avoid being ambushed by swelling music. The just-mentioned music does sound grand and fairly enveloping courtesy of a wide front soundstage. The robust bass presence during appropriate moments added to the ambience. The surround speakers don't do much, but heavy lifting on their part would be inappropriate for a small-scale drama anyway.

Optional English subtitles as well as English closed captions support the audio.

Extras:
There are those two-disc sets of Quentin Tarantino films from Miramax, and there are those multi-disc "LOTR" releases from New Line. Then, there is the Region 1 edition of "Heavenly Creatures", offering little besides the film, the film's trailer, and some Miramax commercials. Since Superbit DVDs are a Sony marketing concept, you don't even get the benefits of dual 5.1 audio tracks and maxed-out bit rates.

--Miscellaneous--
A glossy insert provides chapter listings.

Film Value:
"Heavenly Creatures" mines psychological depths unfound in so many movies, even Peter Jackson's popular and highly-praised "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring". The accomplished feel of the movie makes me wonder how in the world the director made "The Frighteners" and "Bad Taste". Filled with thought-provoking and closer-to-his-home-than-Jackson-knows subtexts, the film is one of the few genuine gems to come out of the 1990s.

Also, for once, a Buena Vista company has shown the guts to release the uncut version of a film. (I'm waiting for the director's cut of "crazy/beautiful", Mr. Eisner.) Sure, the Region 1 DVD has no real extras, but I'm sure that Jackson is either too busy with his "The Lord of the Rings" project or too angry with the Weinsteins for refusing to finance "LOTR" (yet still taking a cut of the profits) to record an audio commentary. Of course, ultimately, it's about the film, as they say, and it's great to have the widescreen edition of "Heavenly Creatures" on DVD. In the words of Kate Winslet's Juliet, "It's frightfully romantic!"

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
7
Extras
1
Film Value
8