HEAVENLY CREATURES/1994/PETER JACKSON
1994/Director: Peter Jackson/Writers: Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Peirse, Diana Kent, Clive Merrison, Simon O’Connor, Jed Brophy
On June 22, 1954 the peaceful little port city of Christchurch, New Zealand was shaken to the core by the murder of one Honora Rieper in idyllic Victoria Park. The horror only grew when diary entries by Honora’s daughter Pauline Parker (Pauline used her mother’s maiden name during the subsequent trial since Honora and Herbert Rieper had never actually married, though it proved to be a minor issue scandal wise) led police to arrest her and her friend Juliet Hulme for murder. The trial and its press coverage was something of a phenomenon for New Zealand who had not had much excitement since Sir Edmund Hillary scaled Mt. Everest a year before. The papers were rife with conjecture concerning the relationship between the two girls. Did the girls share some type of insanity? Were they lesbian lovers or not? That may seem trivial now, or it may not, but in 50’s New Zealand homosexuality was an indication of a severe mental disorder as well as criminal behavior. The real life Juliet Hulme, who went on to live in Scotland and write mystery novels under the name Anne Perry, has denied there was ever a lesbian relationship between herself and Pauline, who now resides in England as well under the name Hilary Nathan and, as a Roamn Catholic convert, devotes her life to helping handicapped children. One thing for certain was that the girls had formed over a period of a couple years deep bound that they were not about to split apart by the decisions of their families without resistance.
Peter Jackson had gained a reputation up to this point for making splatter horror/comedy films such as Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Braindead (Dead Alive). The movies were pretty good low budget fare that have all gone to genuine cult status but were hardly the sort of thing that would attract mainstream attention or approval. He was approached by friend and writer Fran Walsh with the concept of turning the Parker-Hulme murder story into a motion picture. Walsh had long been fascinated with the story and hoped to give the story a fact based retelling. The story had actually loosely been told before in the 1971 French film Mais Ne Nous D¨¦livrez Pas Du Mal (Don’t Deliver Us From Evil) and while there are elements of the story in this interesting film there are lots of liberties as well, the most obvious being the story is set in France. I do recommend Don’t Deliver Us From Evil as a decent movie however. I had the fortunate opportunity of seeing Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures at the small and cozy Grande Illusions Cinema in Seattle. I knew the name Peter Jackson at the time from his horror/fantasy work and still connect it to the alien vomit drinking scene in Bad Taste. I was not sure what to expect. I was more than happy with the film and Jackson’s decisions to move away from slapstick-gore films (though if he wanted to return once in awhile that would be okay too).
Jackson and Walsh decided to focus the film on the story of the girl’s relationship rather than make it a courtroom drama. In fact there is never a court room shot at all nor even an arresting police officer. The film introduces female leads Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet. Winslet competed against 175 other actresses to get the role. She is really brilliant here but Melanie Lynskey, who went on to a more modest degree of stardom in lesser known films and TV, is simply fantastic as the underprivileged, embittered and desperate Pauline Parker.
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Juliet’s parents move to the small community of Christchurch from England. There her father takes the position of regent at a University there and it must be a step down for him but the move is necessary for Juliet’s health. The intellectually disciplined Dr. Henry Hulme (Clive Merrison) would develop conflicts eventually with the small town provincialism of the Christchurch school leaders that would lead to yet one more element of insecurity in the life of Juliet. She has tuberculosis in one lung and the warm climes of places like the Bahamas and now New Zealand are more suited to treating her ailment. She befriends classmate Pauline Rieper while both of them sit out gym class each day due to health concerns. Pauline suffered from the bone disease osteomyelitis in her legs and has the scars of numerous operations to show for her ordeal, scars that Juliet wants to gaze at over and over. Juliet is a bright and vivacious girl with a sharp intellect. Her family is affluent and well bred and educated. Frumpy and insecure Pauline comes from a working class family and she is soon overwhelmed by the opulent lives led by the Hulmes. At the same times she becomes all but ashamed of her own family and its crude views of the world.
The girls escape reality in many seemingly innocuous fashions. They develop a fantasy world they call Borovnia where the inhabitants seem to be parodies of the royal family. The world of Borovnia showcases Jackson’s fascination with animation and fantasy scenes that are a part of all his films. Juliet has inherited her father’s agnosticism and she develops a non-Christian quasi-spiritual realm known as the Fourth World and Pauline is invited to be a part of this world were images of their favorite opera singers and movie actors are enshrined and worshipped . Singer Mario Lanzi is held in godlike reverence by Juliet but she is revolted when Pauline tries to include a b/w photo of Orsen Welles into the shrine. A later nightmare sequence would show Welles stalking the girls through film noir type sets.
While Pauline seems to entertain fantasies that she has become a part of the Hulme household nothing could be further from reality as not only does Henry Hulme become concerned over the nature of the girl’s relationship but he and his wife Hilda (Diana Kent) are drifting apart and looking to get a divorce eventually. For now they live together, with Hilda’s psychiatric and lover Bill, out of convenience and propriety. At her home Pauline has become more and more distant from her parents and particularly combative with her mother Honora (Sarah Peirse) who really seems to do the best she can but has her hands full. After Pauline is caught in the sack with one of the boarders her parents put even more restrictions on her comings and goings. The final nail in the girl’s coffin comes after Juliet is released from a TB hospital and Henry is asked to resign from the University and he decides to return to England and leave cheating Hilda in New Zealand. Juliet will not stay with her two timing mother and refuses to go to England without Pauline, and England is simply bad for her health at this time. She needs a warm, dry climate to get better and so the family decides to send her to live with an aunt in South Africa. The girls image that Pauline can leave and go live in South Africa with Juliet but Pauline’s mother makes it clear that her 15 year old daughter is not going anywhere. They then have big plans of getting together some money and running away to America to become writers but that dream is squashed as well when Honora refuses to sign for her passport.
Driven to such a situation what else can you do but hatch a murder plot where you put half a brick into a stocking and repeatedly beat poor your own mother’s skull in after having a cup of tea with her. According to information not presented in the film the girl’s made up the story that Honora slipped and fell and hit a rock while walking with them through a park. The body showed she had been beat in the head and face multiple times and there were defensive wounds on her hands as well. Well, maybe she fell and got up and fell again, and then got back up and¡
The girl’s story unraveled the very same day when police discovered Pauline’s diary in her bedroom. They both only served five years in jail ad were released on the condition they never contact one another again, and as far as anyone knows they never have. The film treats the characters sympathetically. And not just the girls. Juliet’s parents are distant from her but they are trying to sort out the mess of their privates lives at the same time. Pauline’s parents are simple folk but love her and cannot quite deal with her sudden bitterness and hostility. Juliet’s beaming personality hides an anguished soul and Pauline’s brooding nature only intensifies as the film progresses. The onscreen chemistry between Winslet and Lynskey is of a rare variety. They became so immersed in their roles that they continued to portray the characters off screen as well. Watch for one scene were a jubilant Juliet kisses a bum on the street. It is a cameo by Peter Jackson. Producer and Jackson’s friend and associate Jim Booth died when the film was completed and it is dedicated to him. A dark and marvelous journey from a man could have just continued making zombie movies.