Peter Jackson’s ‘Heavenly Creatures’ (1994)

26May09

After watching An American Crime the other day, I felt compelled to pull out Heavenly Creatures to remind myself how a true crime movie should be done. In depicting the Parker-Hulme murder that happened in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1954, director Peter Jackson seamlessly blends fantasy and suspense into what amounts to a coming-of-age story. Though Jackson by no means downplays the brutal, chilling murder – the film both begins and ends with it – Pauline and Juliet are so well-drawn and well-portrayed that the audience can’t help but be captivated by their relationship.

Heavenly Creatures was the feature film debut for both Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. Winslet had done some work in British television, but Lynskey was discovered by co-writer Fran Walsh when she scoured high schools in New Zealand for Pauline Parker lookalikes. Winslet’s career very quickly took off soon after filming Heavenly Creatures when she played Marianne Dashwood in Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, a role for which she was nominated for many awards, while Lynskey languished in obscurity for several more years. However, both young actresses effortlessly inhabit their characters, and their natural chemistry carries the film during the slower bits. Paul and Juliet remind me of girls I knew when I was younger – they do not seem like monsters. But Winslet and Lynskey give them enough of an off-kilter quality that I can see why they would form such an intense friendship and how that relationship could lead to extraordinary behavior.

The girls initially bond over their ailments that caused them to have extended stays in hospitals, and in Juliet’s case she has developed something of a romanticized notion of death and dying. With working-class parents who run a boarding house out of their home, Pauline is intrigued by Juliet’s posh lifestyle, but Juliet’s homelife is far from ideal despite the fineness of her surroundings. Though not completely unkind, her parents do seem rather self-absorbed, and they keep deserting her to recuperate from various illnesses. During Juliet’s convalescence in a tuberculosis hospital, her relationship with Paul becomes increasingly codependent and steeped in fantasy when they decide to write to each other as characters they created. Eventually, Juliet finds herself living with her parents and her mother’s lover during their divorce, and Paul’s relationship with her parents becomes unstable when she becomes the object of one of their boarders’ inappropriate attentions. Paul and Juliet delve so completely into their fantasy world because of these instabilities in their home environments, and the girls feed off each other’s increasing desperation, which leads to murder seeming necessary, even unavoidable. Jackson leaves it up to the viewers to decide how insane they think the girls become.

Heavenly Creatures is one of those movies that makes lesbians squirm a little. Portraying queer women (and men) as psychopaths is a time-tested technique of the film and television industry – right up there with suicidal and predatory lesbians – for delivering the message that homosexuality is wrong and no good will ever come of those gays. Because the newspaper coverage of the Parker-Hulme murder sensationalized the girls’ supposed lesbianism, Jackson was obligated to address that aspect of their relationship within the film. He includes a friendly kiss between Paul and Juliet early on, and he portrays a passage of Paul’s diary that describes her and Juliet “enact[ing] how each Saint would make love in bed” as the girls having sex, though he clearly implies that they imagine making love to their male saints as they do it. However, he chose not to include a passage of Pauline’s diary that reads “I believe I could fall in love with Juliet,” which is very telling about his agenda. Like the girls’ sanity, I think that Jackson purposefully leaves their sexual orientation a bit ambiguous, giving me the impression that Pauline and Juliet’s intense codependent relationship became sexual in nature due to their burgeoning sexuality more than anything else. I think Jackson had strong evidence that Pauline and Juliet’s relationship did involve sexual encounters, so I cannot read his inclusion of those lesbian overtones as derogatory toward the LGBT community when he approaches these two characters with such affection.

I find the last sentence of the film’s postscript, which mentions that a condition of the girls’ parole was that they never see each other again, particularly intriguing. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker ever did meet again. Most likely, nothing would happen. I doubt they would be able to become friends again, let alone commit another crime together. But their story does beg the question of whether either of these women would have become a murderer had they never met.

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