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Film review: Heavenly Creatures

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 10 2003 2:42 p.m. MST

A horrifying true story, "Heavenly Creatures" is about two misfits, a pair of young teenage girls who became so obsessed with each other's company that ultimately their parents come to realize they need to be separated. But when the adults make that decision, the kids take drastic action. They murder one of their mothers.

Set in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the incident occurred in the early 1950s, "Heavenly Creatures" is an eccentric film, a sort of off-kilter female Leopold and Loeb story. Except that this one is even scarier, since these are young teenage girls who, initially, seem quite innocent, despite their high-spirited imaginations.

The film begins with the murder, as Pauline and Juliet take Pauline's mother for a stroll in the woods and then beat her to death with a brick in a stocking.

Afterward, Pauline's diary is used to provoke flashbacks in a straightforward telling of their story. Lonely in school and unable to make other friends, the girls drift toward each other and gradually begin dreaming up a world of their own, complete with their own brand of royalty, and include their shared passion for popular opera singer Mario Lanza. And little by little, they begin to exclude everyone else from their lives.

The performers are all quite good, in particular Kate Winslet as Juliet and especially Melanie Lynskey as Pauline, both of whom seem more and more startlingly disturbed as the film progresses.

But while director Peter Jackson has made the film visually arresting, he undercuts the drama and suspense with too many overwrought fantasy sequences (especially those singing life-size clay figures), as well as intrusive razzle-dazzle camera work. He also employs a claustrophobic point of view, leaving far too many plot holes. Audience members may leave with the feeling that they haven't gotten the entire story.

As a result, a movie that begins with high tension gradually fizzles out.

As a postscript, it is interesting to note that part of their sentence agreement was that the girls would never see each other again. And after they were released from pris-on, both virtually disappeared until Juliet made headlines when it was revealed she was a popular author of mystery novels, writing as Anne Perry.

"Heavenly Creatures" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity and vulgarity.