When I went to rent Heavenly Creatures from my retro video rental store, as you do, the same employee who had abstained from mansplaining Blade Runner to me was delighted with my choice. It was real good, he assured me, but DARK. “Who would have thought that guy would go on to direct Lord of the Rings?” he chuckled, in wonder. “Oh I like that though!” I told him. “I followed up Mad Max with Babe.” Not 2 brag but based on his face I think I’m now his favorite customer.
You do sometimes get these funny filmographies though, where a director seems to make more genre jumps than their peers. And I really do like that, a lot, because setting Mad Max and Babe next to each other, movies that at first glance seem pretty far apart, ends up telling you so much more about who George Miller is as a storyteller than simply watching the Mad Max series and nothing else.
But we’re not talking about my dear Australian grandfather today, we’re talking about the works of my oddball New Zealander uncle, Peter Jackson. It turns out that things about the Lord of the Rings trilogy that I would have thought unique to his Middle Earth are hallmarks of his whole approach. It actually starts in the approach, how here too he and Fran Walsh spent so much time with the source material, learning it inside out and wholeheartedly, so that the screenplay they crafted came from a place of rather remarkable sensitivity. Just like how they dug into Tolkien’s dense world and pulled up these incredible relationships between characters, they dug into a sensational 1950s murder trial and pulled up the twisted yet deeply profound connection between the two girls at the center of it. And then they shot both with the same DP, Alun Bollinger, bringing what I now see are his trademark shots — looming close just below someone’s nose as the ceiling stretches around them, flying wide from a helicopter over a figure running across the hilltops of New Zealand, and all the others you know and love from LOTR.
The girls though, the girls still are the center of it all. Headstrong, manic Juliet, who adores fanciful stories and tenor Mario Lanza as much as she loathes Christianity and Orson Welles: passionately. And loving, brooding Pauline, the anti-hero with a thousand names: Yvonne at home, Paul at school, and in Borovnia, the vivid, violent fantasy kingdom she and Juliet build, she’s Gina, her sister, or Charles, her lover. Juliet though is only ever Debora, always Debora. Always the two of them, always running running running, flashing like a pair of laughing Furies. Morbid, hedonistic young witches, prophetesses of a glowing dream realm of art and madness — the Fourth World, where “compared with these two, every man is a fool.” And so they go, falling into each other’s arms and a bloody folie à deux.
Lightly spoilery note: Once again I find myself writing about a story featuring Gay Villains, but once again I feel like the movie has made an effort not to damn them for this specifically. It is clear that we are to judge the girls for their true crime, murder, and not for how they love each other. The glorified psychiatrist who pronounces Pauline’s proclivities a sickness is depicted as misguided and gross, and when Juliet’s father will not stop obsessively prying and fretting over his daughter’s relationship, her mother tiredly admonishes him: “Just leave them alone, Henry.” Yes, Henrys of the world, just leave the queer girls alone. It does not concern you, by definition.