The Best Film on TV this Week

Heavenly Creatures (1994, Peter Jackson)

When, as it must to all men, death comes to Peter Jackson, doubtless the obituaries will focus heavily, if not exclusively, on his epic movies based on the preposterously pompous works of J.R.R. Tolkien. That would be a shame. Those overblown bore-fests are far from being Jackson’s most significant contribution to the medium. The man peaked seven years earlier with his one indisputable masterpiece, Heavenly Creatures.

This film is based on a true story, but don’t let that put you off. This is no movie-of-the-week.

1950s New Zealand. Two teenage girls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet), form an obsessive friendship that ultimately leads to murder.

The girls are bookworms and begin writing their own collaborative fantasy stories which they become more and more wrapped up in. This leads to some extraordinary sequences in which the girls’ fantasies blend with the real world; the magical seeps into the mundane. Jackson is using special effects with purpose, not simply to dazzle but to illuminate character and propel the drama.

Like many of Jackson’s movies, Heavenly Creatures is often hilarious. And you may wonder what happened to this pre-Titanic Winslet with her precisely detailed, and very funny, portrayal of arrogant precociousness.

The brilliance of Jackson’s direction is that he manages to maintain an uncomfortable intensity alongside the humour and the special effects. He then achieves a late switch into devastating tragedy. This isn’t easy. Try thinking of another film that successfully balances so many varying tones and stylistic changes.

-One of the best English language films of the 90s

-Peter Jackson’s career curveballs: splatter horror films Bad Taste, Braindead – Muppets parody Meet the FeeblesHeavenly CreaturesThe FrightenersLOTR

-Mario Lanza music – quaint, enthralling, sinister

-Postscript: what happened to the two girls…

Heavenly Creatures is showing tonight, 12.35am BBC 2

Sam Bowles