Turning one of New Zealand’s most notorious murder cases into an entertaining movie is an audacious notion. But it’s what Peter Jackson has managed to do with Heavenly Creatures. His version of the Hulme-Parker case is beautiful to look at, sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying. And always profoundly disturbing.
Christchurch, 1954. Schoolgirls Juliet Hulme and Pauline Rieper (she was charged with murder under her mother’s maiden name, Parker) meet and form a relationship intense and obsessive enough to qualify as demented love.
Pauline, whose parents run a boarding house, idolises haughty English Juliet, whose academic parents live in cocktail-sipping affluence. In a dizzy welter of shared romantic storytelling, private rituals and play acting, Pauline and Juliet become deeply enmeshed in fantasy. Reality dissolves. When the threat of being parted looms, their daydreams of fleeing to Hollywood and becoming movie stars are crushed. They turn on reality and attempt to destroy it.
The two schoolgirls murder Pauline’s mother Honora by smashing her skull in with a brick.
After a brief prologue (a quaint archival travelogue of Christchurch in the l950s), Jackson opens on shots of the girls, soaked in blood, running up a path screaming. If you’ve never heard of the Hulme-Parker case, you know at once that it will end in tears.
Many things make Heavenly Creatures deeply unsettling. One is the inevitable prurient element. No bare flesh is on display, but the schoolgirls cuddle, kiss, caress, tearfully pour their hearts out to each other and romp in their underwear in the bush, to the cheerful strains of Mario Lanza singing “The Donkey Serenade”.
Jackson seems to be challenging us to be as shocked by the lesbian element as New Zealand was 40 years ago. The only time the term “homosexuality” appears is in a huge, screen-filling close-up of a psychiatrist’s lips as he struggles to get the dreaded word out. Of course, this provokes a laugh from an audience in 1994. How repressed New Zealanders were in 1954! Then we stop and reflect that we are watching dementia served up as entertainment. Are our own attitudes any healthier?
Just as unsettling is the way Jackson and fellow scriptwriter Frances Walsh so completely identify with the girls’ view- point. Castles and magical kingdoms, about which Pauline and Juliet fantasise, rise before our very eyes. The girls dance with full-size nightmare figures. In swift wish-fulfilment sequences, troublesome, intrusive adults are impaled on spikes. A very mobile camera tracks, dollies, cranes and scuttles around the girls as they frolic, coming close to reproducing the type of delirium they are experiencing.
But there’s an awful tension built into all this. The fact is, Pauline’s mother Honora emerges as the film’s most sym- pathetic character. She is played by Sarah Peirse as a concerned, compassionate mum, inarticulate but painfully worried about her daughter and trying to do her best for her. Any pleasure we take in the film’s fantasy element has to be measured against the sheer ugliness of Honora’s murder.
On every technical level, this is an impressive film. Its ample budget (and it must be one of New Zealand’s most expensive films) is all visible on the screen -- in Alun Bollinger’s handsome, wide-screen cinematography; in the elaborate morphing processes used to create the fantasy worlds; in the plethora of copyrighted material (1950s recordings and film clips) that Jackson has been able to use. The performances of Melanie Lynskey (Pauline) and Kate Winslet (Juliet) are no less extraordinary than Peter Jackson’s transformation from jaunty maker of cinematic grunge (Braindead, Meet The Feebles) to accomplished director.
Heavenly Creatures is an emotional roller coaster ride, hard to shake out of the memory. I would not be surprised if its international impact quite eclipse The Piano.
North & South Review by Nicholas Reid - October 1994