Plot: Two friends imagine wildly.
Here's further proof that Peter Jackson's career was far more interesting before he made all those movies about Hobbits walking around and a King Kong remake. This is one of those examples of truth being much stranger than fiction. At the center of Heavenly Creatures, we watch a friendship develop. Jackson paints the story like a fairy tale; the camera vibrantly floats around, even through the innards of a sand castle, and there's a garden's worth of colors. Eventually, you get the sense that this fairy tale friendship is going to end up being more like a Grimm fairy tale. Somebody's losing toes, in other words. By the matter-of-fact climax, chilling because of just how matter-of-fact it is, you just sort of nod and think, "Yeah, that feels about right," even though nothing about it feels about right. Show somebody individual shots of this movie, and you could probably convince them it's going to be an imaginative and colorful family film, like The Secret Garden or something. This story, however, tackles a much darker flavor of childish imagination. This is more Willy Wonka boat ride than it is The Secret Garden, but it sneaks up on you really quietly.
I'm not sure this movie would have worked without the two very good performances from the leads, Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. Winslet's as good as you'd expect her to be, although not nearly as naked, but Lynskey gives the more nuanced performance. And I looked up pictures of the real Pauline and Juliet and was shocked to see just how much Lynskey resembled the former. She nails the character with posture, deepened gazes, and sad hair curls. Watching their decline into the depths of madness is fascinating, especially since there's nothing wacky or artificial about it. You get the madness from the perspective of the central characters, so it feels like something very real. And at the same time, you're sympathetic, almost rooting for the duo no matter what they decide to do about their problems.
There's nothing wacky, but that's not to say there isn't some weirdness. Those clay people sequences contain imagery that will likely be memorable, and I really have no idea how those scenes were filmed. I was a big fan of stalker Orson Welles although that entire scene seemed a little out of place. I'm not sure how realistic this look at mental illness is exactly, but Jackson sure does portray it in a way that is likely to stick in my mind for a while.
This movie is not an easy experience, less easy because you watch it while knowing that it's all based on a true story.