Torn between heaven and earth

Issue 

Heavenly Creatures
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Frances Walsh and Peter Jackson
Starring Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet
Produced by Wingnut Films
Reviewed by Jenny Long

Based on the true story made famous as one of New Zealand's most notorious murder cases, Heavenly Creatures is a most compelling and disturbing film. The violent, premeditated murder in repressed, ultra-English Christchurch in 1954 of the mother of schoolgirl Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey), by her and her school-friend and lover, Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), shocked the town and country. The girls avoided the death penalty only because of their youth.

Director Peter Jackson sets the tone right from the start, capturing the feel of life in conservative Christchurch in the '50s with archival footage, then switching to a scene immediately following the horrific murder of Honora Rieper. The film traces back through events of the two years leading up to the murder, building a picture of life for the girls as their relationship develops, putting them increasingly in conflict with prevailing reality.

Pauline, whose working-class parents run a boarding house, meets Juliet, whose affluent, educated parents' neglect and absences leave her to fill the hole with a fantasy Kingdom of the Fourth World, which Pauline shares and, as she says, "only about 10 people in the world know about". There is no indication that any of the other eight people might live in Christchurch. Their increasing preoccupation with romantic storytelling, private rituals and acting out mirrors their growing close relationship.

The girls' fantasy world is beautifully created by the film; we see the knights and princesses, along with Mario Lanza, regarded by the girls as "the greatest tenor in the Western world" and a saint. We also see how hard reality becomes for them, as Pauline's mother takes her to a child psychiatrist. His attitude towards the suspected mental illness, "homosexuality", is depicted in a huge, screen-filling close-up of his lips as he struggles to get the word out.

Despite this interference, the girls' feelings for each other intensify, and they make love, acting out the roles of the various saints of their fantasy world. The threat of separation brings reality brutally into their lives. Determining that Pauline's mother is their greatest obstacle to life together, they plan and execute her murder. The brutality and cold-blooded premeditation of the event, at the end of a gradual build-up of tension throughout the film, are shocking, an ugly partner to the glory of the heavenly creatures' fantasy world.

The murder is all the more awful because Honora Rieper is one of the film's most sympathetic characters. She is painfully worried about her daughter, although increasingly unable to reach her. The contradiction of her own concern with respectability, especially sexual respectability, is drawn out at the very end as the film reveals that she was never legally married to Pauline's father, and Pauline is charged under her mother's maiden name of Parker.

The film is closely based upon entries in Pauline's diary, kept over the entire period of the relationship. She wrote of their imaginings and exploits in great detail, including the plans to murder her mother. The diaries were key to their subsequent arrest and trial, which rejected the defence plea of insanity (based on their lesbianism) and jailed them. A condition of their release was that they never contact each other again.

Heavenly Creatures is engrossing and astonishingly realistic in its understanding of the world of the girls, disturbing and challenging at once.

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