Heavenly Creatures (US - BD)
Gabe's revisits Peter Jackson's first Academy Award nominated film...
Dead Alive ( Braindead) should’ve alleviated any doubt that Peter Jackson was a genuinely great filmmaker, but it was awfully gross. I’m told certain cineastes don’t particularly like gross, so before he could sweep up the world in the wonders of The Lord of the Rings, he had to get one ‘serious’ film out the door (though in reality Jackson’s dream project was King Kong, not LotR). Jackson and his long time writing partner/spouse Fran Walsh (they’ve worked together on every one of Jackson’s films since Meet the Feebles, and I don’t believe they’re actually married) chose the notorious (throughout New Zealand) 1954 Parker-Hulme murder case. The story follows a short-lived blossoming friendship between two teenage girls in Christchurch, New Zealand. 14-year-old Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey) comes from a working class family, and is introverted, while 15-year-old Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) comes from an upper class British family, and is extremely extroverted. Both girls are relatively outcast among their peers, and bond during physical education classes, where they are both prohibited from participating due to childhood disease. Together the girls develop a fantasy kingdom they call Borovnia through elaborate stories and clay figures. As they grow more inseparable the line between reality and Borovnia begins to blur. Pauline's relationship with her mother Honora (Sarah Peirse) deteriorates, and she begins to spend most of her time at the Hulme's, where she feels accepted and loved. The girl’s obsessions soon concern their parents, and a plot is hatched to separate them.
The brilliance of Jackson and Walsh’s script (which was nominated for the best original screenplay Oscar) is that it is told from Pauline and Juliet’s point of view, which offers the compellingly unreliable narration. A more straightforward telling of this story would likely approach the girls as ‘the problem’, and revel in the tragedy of the final result, but Jackson and Walsh set the audience in the mindset of two rather unreasonable, but likeable young ladies. At the same time we’re also allowed to understand the problem of trusting Pauline’s narration, which allows for a darkly comedic reactions to her plight (the juxtaposition of words and images are common), along with a genuine sense of sorrow when one realizes how un-villainous the parents truly are (not to say they’re particularly good parents). This also allows Jackson to move the film’s tone into some extremely melodramatic places, and still make sense. The film’s protagonists are going through the same stuff many teenagers go through, and hyperbole can feel natural while in the throes of hormones. In this respect the fantasy world presented in Heavenly Creatures is just as concrete as the real world, and in blurring the edge Jackson sticks the audience in the adolescent mindset.
Despite being a generally amazing film all around, the majority of people seem to remember Heavenly Creatures mostly as Kate Winslet’s first film role. The cool kids also remember it as Melanie Lynskey’s first film role, though Lynskey hasn’t won any Academy Awards, and wasn’t a part of one of the biggest motion picture events of all time. The hype around the casting is warranted though, as it’s not often a film carries two such strong first time roles. I can understand the possibility of Winslet’s performance grating on some viewers, but she really encapsulates the intensity of a melodramatic, imaginative, type-A teenager. She’s a little batty, but quite assured for a first time film actress, and she’s delightfully undercut by Lynskey’s bundle of angst and admiration. Lynskey’s performance is also a bit ‘aggressive’, but the tone dictates that melodrama is a necessity. This time around I was fully able to appreciate Lynskey’s physicality. She literally transforms her shape depending on her mood. I also hadn’t appreciated the way she uses multiple names for the people around her. Happily, Lynskey has made a bit of a name for herself recently in American television, but I’ve often found myself somewhat flummoxed by her lack of a post- Heavenly Creatures career.
Most fans and critics have noted that Heavenly Creatures was a massive departure from Dead Alive, but I tend to see the two films as somewhat tonally and thematically similar. Dead Alive is clearly the more manic and outwardly silly of the two films, but both stories are built around forbidden love, revel in bizarre characters (the two films even share some of their supporting casts), and treat generally dark subjects with genuine warmth. In contrast I’d like to note that despite its status, Dead Alive isn’t really all that scary of a film, and the last 15 minutes of Heavenly Creatures are among the more nerve-wracking, genuinely tragic things I’ve ever seen on film. But assuming one can overlook the graphic violence and goofy gross-out gags, the two films are even shot in a similar matter. Jackson’s style hasn’t changed a lot over the years despite the massive increase in his budgets, but Dead Alive and Heavenly Creatures share a hand-held quality, and an immediacy that has gone missing from his newer, slicker films ( LotR and King Kong both utilize low frame rate slow motion to a similar effect). Above the riveting story, dynamic performances and singular tone, my most vivid memories of the film are found in Jackson and cinematographer Alun Bollinger’s camera work. The frame rarely settles, whether it’s floating through a dream state, shaking with the immediacy of realism, or equating the girl’s manic mindset with swooping push-ins and pull-outs. And when it does settle, it settles with real purpose, and stops the frenzied tone dead.
Heavenly Creatures hasn’t had the best record on digital video over the years. I thought the original Miramax DVD release was good enough, but there was obviously room for improvement. My affection for Jackson’s imagery was the real deciding factor in me ‘needing’ this particular film on Blu-ray disc. For the most part I’m perfectly satisfied with this new 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer, but it appears that the source material isn’t quite up to ‘oh my god that’s amazing’ levels of restoration. Having never seen the film in theaters I never noticed how much more vibrant the colour palette becomes when Pauline and Juliet enter their dream world, and this transfer does a fine job of juxtaposing the more pastel and muted palette of the ‘real world’ (the dream world also slowly infiltrates the real world as the film progresses). Once one realizes there’s meant to be a distinction (the night time environments feature a slightly neon look) it’s easy to forgive the not quite poppy nature of the bulk of the colours, and appreciate the cleanliness of the not so vibrant moments. Details levels are certainly better than those of the DVD release, but only as good as the purposefully soft focus allows, for the bulk of the film, at least. As colours become more intense so does contrast, which leads to strong, rich black levels, especially during the more darkly lit wind up to the climax. Some of the more expansive shots of New Zealand’s natural vistas are a bit mushy, but the more prevalent problem is general edge enhancement effects. There are also a handful of shots with minor digital noise, and a few flecks of but nothing major.
The film starts with a brilliant blend from flat, mono sound to an aggressive, hyper realistic stereo spread of terror, music and screaming. This is both jarring and effective, and sets the stage for additional dream-like touches in the stereo channels (the roar of plane engines, the splat of digital paint, the slamming of off-screen doors, the ‘swoop’ of the camera). This release features the original 2.0 surround mix (in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio), not a 5.1 remix, so it has some definite limitations, but the dialogue is relatively well centered, and the LFE has some degree of oomph. There’s also a decent amount of surround ambience like chirping birds or wind, but not much in the way of directional movement. Peter Dasent’s score is often quite clever, but has always sounded a bit thin to me, likely because much of it was composed on keyboards. The lack of a discreet LFE channels doesn’t really help.
Besides a trailer, the closest this disc comes to extras is the uncut version of the film, which puts it above the UK release, despite that release's retrospective featurette.
It’s difficult to pinpoint Peter Jackson’s best film because Dead Alive, Heavenly Creatures and the Lord of the Rings series are so eclectic, but Heavenly Creatures feels like a solid median because both Dead Alive fans that do not enjoy LotR, and LotR fans that do not enjoy Dead Alive can likely agree to its value as both entertainment and art. If you haven’t seen it you owe it to yourself, and though this isn’t a perfect looking disc, an HD release is as good an excuse as any. It’s just too bad that no one bothered to put together any retrospective extras.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 13th December 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Easter Egg: No
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Peirse, Diana Kent, Clive Merrison
Genre: Drama and Fantasy
Length: 109 minutes
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