Long before Peter Jackson and Kate Winslet became household names for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Titanic,” respectively, they collaborated on a wonderful little film called “Heavenly Creatures.”
“Heavenly Creatures” was an Oscar-nominated film (for Best Screenplay, 1994) directed by Jackson and starred Winslet and Melanie Lynskey in their feature film debuts as teenage best friends Juliet Hulme and Pauline Rieper (Parker), respectively. Although it was based on the infamous 1954 Parker-Hulme murder case, majority of the film explored the obsessive friendship between Pauline and Juliet and the events that led to the murder of the former’s mother Honora.
The Parker-Hulme case was said to have caused an outrage when it was brought to the attention of the public. People believed the girls were insane, even branding them as most evil persons on Earth. Pauline’s relationship with her mother grew increasingly bad, and so when she opposed her daughter’s desire to go with Juliet when she was to be sent away to a relative following her parents’ divorce, the girls began to plot Honora’s murder. It happened on June 22, 1954 at Victoria Park in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the girls alternately struck Honora’s head with a brick wrapped in a stocking several times, with the intention of making it appear like an accidental death. Pauline and Juliet were tried and found guilty of murder – the plea of insanity rejected by the jury in the Christchurch Supreme Court – and were imprisoned separately. Five years later they were released at different times, on the condition that they never see each other again.
But contrary to the public’s impression of Pauline and Juliet, Jackson’s film made it clear that the two, despite their violent and wicked ways, were exceptionally intelligent and creative. Actually, the crime was explicitly addressed only in the opening scene that showed the aftermath of the murder and in the latter part where Pauline and Juliet plotted and executed their plan. For the most part, “Heavenly Creatures,” with its well-executed fantastical scenes of “Fourth World” and the kingdom of Borovnia, imaginary places that the girls have created, was simply all about the relationship between the two.
“Heavenly Creatures” is brilliant in that it wasn’t given the usual treatment that most crime films have – i.e., bringing too much focus on the crime and sometimes even hyping it up for more drama while placing less emphasis on the other aspects of the story. Parker and Hulme were rumored to have had a homosexual relationship, and while this would already be automatically an exploited facet, the movie addressed it only subtly – well, subtler than what we have been accustomed to these days, at least. For their debut roles, Winslet and Lynskey were remarkable. It might appear that their acting here seemed to be more for theater than film, and whether that was intentional or not, somehow it worked because it made more sense given the characters they were playing. And although “Heavenly Creatures” showed what went inside the girls’ minds, largely through Pauline’s actual diary entries, it neither attempted to blatantly justify nor glorify the crime that was committed.
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Further reading: The Parker-Hulme murder case on Wikipedia, From the archive, 28 August 1954: Girls accused of murder in New Zealand ‘both sane’, and The Parker-Hulme murder – Why it still matters to us.