Truth and Movies

Why I love Kate Winslet’s performance in Heavenly Creatures

Her breakthrough role in Peter Jackson’s 1994 drama instantly set the stage for her movie stardom.

Words

Orla Smith

@orlamango

Kate Winslet tends to be associated with awards-worthy blockbusters like Titanic and serious-minded dramas like The Reader. Recently she gave one of the best performances of her career in Ammonite, a role that required months of down-in-the-mud preparation and plenty of unshowy but supremely affecting acting. Indeed, her CV boasts a range of challenging, transgressive roles that demonstrate her range way beyond traditional awards fare. Films such as Holy Smoke or Quills reveal a dark side to Winslet that she isn’t afraid to explore.

The stage was set for Winslet’s varied and daring career from the very start, with her debut role as murderous teenager Juliet Hulme in Peter Jackson’s dark 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures. Jackson introduced her to the world as a luminous star with a dark side – an image that informed the roles she was offered for years to come.

The director spotted Winslet, then just 17, at an open casting call. She was one of 175 girls who auditioned for the part of Juliet, an aristocratic young English woman who arrives at a girls’ school in New Zealand after her father relocated the family for his new job. Heavenly Creatures was based on a real-life murder case which saw two obsessively close best friends, Juliet and Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), murder Pauline’s mother as revenge for trying to keep them apart. Juliet is the beautiful, vibrant, more-than-slightly unhinged outsider who the shy Pauline is instantly drawn to. It’s not hard to see why Winslet got the part.

While critics at the time praised Winslet and Lynskey equally, it was the former’s career that took off immediately after Heavenly Creatures; she received her first Oscar nomination the following year for Sense and Sensibility and before landing her career-defining role in Titanic. Lynskey, meanwhile, struggled to find work, slowly rebuilding her reputation as a character actor over the next few decades.

It’s the way Winslet is presented in Heavenly Creatures that secured her stardom. The story is told from Pauline’s perspective – it begins with her, and Lynskey narrates the film – and through her we experience Juliet as a dazzling other. She’s a mysterious outsider from another continent. She’s wealthier and more put together than Pauline, who skulks around with her eyes on the ground and her frizzy black hair in a cloud around her head. Pauline’s clothes are baggy while Juliet’s are fitted, her wealth bolstering the illusion of effortless perfection.

It’s odd watching Winslet’s introductory scene 25 years later, because it feels weighted – almost regal – as if Jackson knew he was coronating a future screen icon. Although we actually glimpse Juliet only once prior to her proper introduction: in the film’s prologue, she and Pauline run shrieking through the forest; they lunge at the camera, their faces splattered with blood, screaming for help. It’s an unsettling scene that hints at the wildness beneath Juliet’s pristine surface, which is obscured in her official entrance a few scenes later.

And what an entrance it is. A teacher announces to a group of girls at their desks, “Class, this is Juliet Hulme.” The camera lingers on an empty doorway, awaiting Winslet’s entrance. Then she steps in, hands held primly behind her back, chin lifted high; the camera draws into her face, marking her importance. She surveys the room with as much authority as a teacher, even though her character is only 14. Her expression is neutral, and she’s perfectly groomed: eyebrows plucked, blonde hair straight and neatly styled, without a strand out of place. When she eventually speaks, her posh British accent sounds exactly like her hair looks: clipped, bold, and without a syllable out of place.

And yet there’s a glimpse of something playful beneath her aloof exterior, which only adds to her allure. When the teacher who introduces her briefly looks away, Juliet derisively rolls her eyes. Her posture, and this wordless insult, makes her seem powerful – she sees herself as so far above the adults around her that she barely veils her disdain for them. Moments later, she sits down among the class, and immediately corrects the teacher on her French.

In just a few minutes of screen time, it’s instantly clear why Winslet was destined for the big time. And yet, she may have had a very different career if it weren’t for what follows: Juliet tumbles into hysteria, madness, and what the adults around her perceive as sexual deviance. As she and Pauline fall deeper into their fantasy world, Winslet’s bright voice becomes increasingly manic, devolving into scenes of red-faced sobbing by the end. She tricks us into thinking Juliet is a composed young lady, before revealing her to be a live wire capable of bloody murder.

While Hollywood loves to put young actresses in a box, Winslet was immediately impossible to pigeon hole, attracting the attention of heavyweight filmmakers and arthouse radicals alike.

Published 3 Apr 2021

Tags: Heavenly Creatures Kate Winslet Melanie Lynskey Peter Jackson

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