Peter Jackson, the director and cowriter of Heavenly Creatures, has a deliriously overwrought cinematic style, the kind that whooshes past nuance and logic and even good taste to hit your senses like opium. Set in the early '50s, in the New Zealand village of Christchurch, this ripe hallucination of a movie a rhapsody in purple has been photographed in sun-drenched candy color that lends it the surreal clarity of a dream. At the same time, the camera keeps rushing about as if a gremlin were at the controls. It speeds through pastures and woods, soars over hills, and zooms up to windows and doorways, tracking the characters' movements with predatory fervor, only to plunge, moments later, into their gaudiest fantasies. What makes all of this doubly outrageous is that Jackson, who is best known for the leapin'-innards horror comedy Dead Alive (1993), has tethered his kaleidoscopic style to a disturbing true-life tale: the case of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, teenage friends whose descent into a mutually created fairy-tale world culminated in their murdering Pauline's mother. Heavenly Creatures doesn't explain this crime with any psychological depth at times, the film is emotionally opaque and yet it's impossible to take your eyes off it. Imagine a slasher thriller set inside the Secret Garden and directed by Ken Russell at his most camera-ecstatic, and you'll have an idea of the movie's luridly intense pop delirium.
The moment the two girls meet, it's a passionate attraction of opposites. Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), awkward and repressed, is the proverbial outsider, her sulky tomboy face peering out from beneath a mop of unruly dark curls. Juliet (Kate Winslet), who has just arrived from England, is haughty and blond and beautiful, an aristocratic princess who moves through life with the unfettered confidence of the truly spoiled. What the two share is a worship of art, a history of childhood illness, and a rejection of family, school, authority. They're scarred delinquent nihilists whose emotions spill over the edges of genteel 1950s society.
Lynskey and Winslet are extraordinary actresses. Whether swooning to Mario Lanza's golden-throat croon or weeping in each other's arms, they achieve a transcendent teen hysteria, innocent yet erotic a mating of the spirit. To give form to their feelings, Pauline and Juliet create the fantasy kingdom of Borovnia, which encompasses Edenic gardens filled with unicorns and giant butterflies as well as a boisterous medieval village in which Juliet's clay sculptures come to life as human-size knights and damsels (one of these statues, a bearded prince named Diello, is summoned by the girls to ''kill'' pesky adults). There's something bracing about the way that Heavenly Creatures serves up its heroines' fantasies with literal-minded brute force. This is a movie that envisions the adolescent imagination not as a soft-focus reverie but as a kind of sixth sense, a concrete refuge from reality.
The film is on shakier ground when portraying the mundane real world. The girls' parents and teachers are photographed through wide-angle lenses and turned into grotesque cartoons of insensitivity (Juliet's father, played by Clive Merrison, quivers like Patrick Magee in A Clockwork Orange). Jackson is trying for an expressionistic effect, but this demonizing of the corrupt adult establishment just seems shallow. It leads, as well, to the film's central flaw: By the time Pauline hatches a plan to bash her poor, workaday mother (Sarah Pierse) in the head with a brick a plan that Juliet avidly goes along with we barely understand why the two girls have metamorphosed into the '50s teenybop answer to Leopold and Loeb. Despite the reading of Pauline Parker's actual diaries on the soundtrack, the murder remains an enigma, locked up in the minds of the real Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme both of whom served time in prison for their crime, and one of whom, Juliet, was revealed last year to be the pseudonymous best-selling mystery writer Anne Perry. A director like The Piano's Jane Campion might have unlocked the mysteries of this story, or at least channeled them into a genuinely complex vision. Still, if the pleaures of Heavenly Creatures remain defiantly on the surface, on that level the movie is a dazzler. B+