3.1 About the film

Are there spoilers to follow in the FAQ?

[jp] Formally, of course there are.

But, curiously enough, it is almost impossible to spoil "Heavenly Creatures" by a plot outline. Indeed, I would argue that knowing the main elements of the film actually heightens the impact of "Heavenly Creatures"--the irony, the anticipation and suspense, the creeping dread. In fact, the film has been structured to take advantage of this strategy (see 3.1).

In this way, "Heavenly Creatures" is like a classical tragedy or even a folk tale. It doesn't hurt to know the main elements of the story, or even the basic story behind the story, before seeing the film. And it may even add a new dimension to the work. Many viewers have commented that "Heavenly Creatures" is every bit as compelling the second and third time around.

To whom is "Heavenly Creatures" dedicated? [jp]

The opening crawl says: "for Jim."

Who is Jim?

[jp] "Jim" is Jim Booth, the producer of "Heavenly Creatures," who died in early 1994 before the film was completed (see 5.2.2).

Where does the story take place?

[jp,lw] Christchurch, New Zealand.

Just a reminder: Because New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, seasons are about six months out of phase with those in the northern hemisphere. This is a very important point for northern-hemisphere viewers to remember. People's emotions are often tied to the seasons, and "Heavenly Creatures" is a film filled to bursting with emotion. The murder occurred on the shortest, darkest day of the year in Christchurch.

The school year is also out of phase with the northern hemisphere school year. The academic year coincides with the calendar year in New Zealand (see 3.1.5 for more on school).

What are the time period and events covered in the film?

[jp] The film covers the time period between early 1952, soon after the beginning of the school year (Third Form) for Pauline, aged 13 (almost 14), and Juliet, aged 13--and mid-afternoon Tuesday June 22, 1954. It was on that bright, mid-Winter day that the two girls murdered Honora Rieper in Victoria Park.

Where is Christchurch and what was it like in the 50s?

[jp,lw,maw] Christchurch is about 2/3 of the way up the eastern seaboard of New Zealand's South Island. The city is bounded on the east by the Pacific Ocean and on the south by the Port Hills, which separate it from the port of Lyttelton, where the "ship" scenes were filmed. Victoria Park lies near the crest of the Port Hills, overlooking Christchurch and just south of the Christchurch suburb of Cashmere (no longer an 'official' suburb name). Farther to the south-east, past Lyttelton, are Port Levy, where the girls first saw the Fourth World, and the hills of the Banks Peninsula.

Before European settlement, the city site was flat but gently sloping eastward, from stony ground in the west toward a coastal swamp drained by the meandering Avon and Heathcote rivers. To some extent the present courses of those rivers have been defined by drainage and channelling works made by the settlers.

The town plan was drawn up before the Canterbury Company settlers arrived in 1850. The original town was laid out on a square grid about 2 km on a side, bordered by the four Avenues (Bealey, Fitzgerald, Moorehouse and Rolleston), with Cathedral Square being the planned centre for commercial development. The main N-S axis of the central city is still Colombo St, with shopping extending one or two blocks to either side. The city had expanded well beyond the original town by the 1950s.

The old Christchurch Girls' High School (CGHS) was located near the western border of the original town, and Hagley Park lies just outside the original town on its western side. Pauline Parker lived on Gloucester St, inside the western border of the original town, and very near CGHS, Christchurch College and Hagley Park. Juliet Hulme lived at Ilam, which lies about 4 km west of Pauline's house, in the present grounds of the University of Canterbury. The move of the campus from downtown to Ilam is a very important element in the real life events (see

The SW corner of the original town was always given over to industry (light industry, now) and the more humble sort of housing. Slightly less humble housing occupied the eastern side of the original town, but the "best" residential district in the early days was in the NW.

There was very little crime. [I lived in the outer suburb of Hoon Hay. We never locked our doors at night. If we went out, we would lock the front but leave the back open. It seems hard to believe, now, but it was a different world then. maw]

The streets around the old CGHS were lined with rather grand two-storied wooden houses built for the better-off settlers, set in tree-filled gardens. Many of those houses and gardens still remain (though not the Rieper residence), gradually being occupied by professional offices such as architects and engineers and by social services connected with the various hospitals. Some, especially north of Gloucester St and along Park Terrace are still private residences. Many houses that are no longer residential were "student flats" in the 50s, occupied by students attending the nearby Canterbury University College.

[In the early 60s, one of the houses behind CGHS had a marvellous old walnut tree. Many of the others were old, wooden, rather rundown dumps. There was a two-storey red house right next to the school that some girls claimed was a brothel! Because I didn't know about the murder when I was at school, I don't know whether I have seen the Riepers' house or not. maw]

The summer holidays in Christchurch are generally hot (temperatures into the upper 70s F [mid 20s C] rising to 80s in January and occasionally the 90s [high 30s]) and dry. Frequently there is no significant rain from October to April, and the desiccating north-west winds often blow up dust storms in the country. These are ideal conditions for the beach and rivers, of which there are many in the area. Christchurch is bordered on the east by a sandy ocean beach [note: Ironically called Brighton Beach ... nothing at all like its cold, damp, pebble-covered English 'namesake.' jp] which runs for 30 miles north, to the point near Amberley where the hills come down to the sea. [Christchurch weather sounds very similar to coastal California, south of Monterey through to Los Angeles. jp]

The film's prologue provides detailed information about Christchurch society in the early 1950s (see 3.1.3).

Where can I get a map of Christchurch?

[lw,jp] New Zealand Minimaps Ltd print a first-rate, full-colour street map of Christchurch and surrounding suburbs. They can be contacted at:

New Zealand Minimaps Ltd
     P.O. Box 2472                 0800 80 2472 [toll-free in NZ]
     Christchurch                  (03) 366 6653 office
     New Zealand.                  (03) 379 1763 FAX
I found having a detailed map to be very useful for understanding many aspects of the case. [jp]

Why is the film structured the way it is?

The filmmakers were faced with the following fascinating dilemma: The "Parker Hulme" case is so well known in New Zealand and Australia that it has effectively become part of the folklore and culture, even if it is not often discussed and the details are muddled when it is discussed. The case is also very well known in Britain. I had certainly heard of it before "Heavenly Creatures" came to be. So how should the film be constructed, when the 'mystery' was effectively spoiled?

Walsh and Jackson chose to tell the audience the rough facts of the case in the stunning Prologue, and this was a critical artistic decision. This device simultaneously removes the element of cheap mystery from the story, and it imbues every word and action in the film with a tremendous weight and resonance, through powerful foreshadowing. In fact, the filmmakers heap more and more foreshadowing on the audience all through the film, until the sense of momentum and tragedy is almost unbearable (see 3.1.14).

In effect, Walsh and Jackson exploit the Prologue to recreate for the audience what must have taken place in the homes of quiet, safe, small-town Christchurch on the mid-winter evening of Tuesday June 22, 1954...

Perhaps the radio is on as we come home from school, or from work, and we sit down to evening tea. Our thoughts are far away. Then, the tail-end of a sentence grabs our attention. What was that? It was the report of a statement made by Mrs Agnes Ritchie, who owns the tea shop in Victoria Park. She described what she had seen, and what she had heard, when two girls came running out of the Park this afternoon--and our hearts catch in our throats and we get this horrible feeling in the pit of our stomachs. (I certainly did: "It's Mummy! She's terribly hurt!" Didn't you?) Something has happened, something terrible, and we suspect... But wait a minute--we know these people. How could something like this have happened? We know these people, or do we?

That's where we join the story. The film is constructed so we find out about the story, and the people, the way the public found out about the "Parker Hulme" case, in the days and weeks following the murder.

From whose perspective is "Heavenly Creatures" told?

[jp] The narrative of "Heavenly Creatures" is told almost entirely from Pauline Rieper's perspective. The film may, in fact, represent Pauline's version of reality, and hers alone.

Who narrates the voiceover?

[jp] The film's voiceover is narrated by Pauline (played by Melanie Lynskey). It consists of edited quotations from the real- life writings and diary entries of Pauline Parker (see 3.2.1 for an explanation of names and 7.4.3 for more extensive quotations from Pauline's diaries).

What is the time line of the narrative?

[jp] The narrative of the film follows a 'wraparound' time line. The stunning opening scene in the prologue takes place at approximately 3:30 p.m., on Tuesday June 22, 1954 in the moments following the murder of Honora Rieper. This time comes from the real-life trial testimony, not the film.

The narrative returns, through the titles and opening credits, to approximately February 1952 and the day Juliet first arrives at Pauline's school, "Girls' High."

The rest of the film follows a straightforward, linear, but uneven time line, with two brief flashbacks.

The narrative comes to its emotionally devastating conclusion in the minutes just after 3:20 p.m., Tuesday June 22, 1954, according to Jackson's speculation. "Heavenly Creatures" ends in the first few moments of Honora Rieper's murder.

There is a residual gap between the events shown at the film's conclusion and the events shown at its wraparound start.

The length of the residual narrative gap cannot be determined solely from the film, but it can be estimated by comparison with the real-life events. The narrative gap turns out to be an interesting and important topic (see 4.8).

What does the film tell about the real-life events?

[sb] By way of a printed prologue, (see 3.1.3) the film informs the audience that Pauline Parker kept a detailed diary and that the voiceover consists of quotations from Pauline's writings.

The printed epilogue (see 4.1) informs the audience of the conviction of the girls for Honora's murder, the terms of their incarceration and the date and terms of their eventual release from incarceration. It also explains the discrepancies between the names used by characters in the film and those mentioned in the prologue and epilogue (see

What does the film say about the girls' trial?

[jp] Nothing. There is no description of the sensational trial, no mention of the world-wide publicity given to the case, no mention of the howl of public condemnation raised against the murderers and no mention of the tremendous flood of editorializing unleashed by the murder.

What does the film say about the fate of the girls?

[jp] Nothing beyond the fact that they were released from incarceration in 1959, and the condition of their release.

What is said about the fate of other characters?

[jp] The printed epilogue mentions that Hilda Hulme was living abroad at the time of her daughter's release from prison (though it does not give Hilda Hulme's new name at the time, or where she was living). No other information is provided about the fate of any of the other central characters in the film.

Where can I find out about the real events and people?

[jp] That's one purpose of this FAQ. There are biographies of the main characters seen in "Heavenly Creatures" in section 3.2. There is extensive background information in section 7, including bio-sketches of key characters not shown in the film, a time line of important events, press clippings covering the trial, an account of the trial and detailed biographies of Henry Hulme and Anne Perry (aka Juliet Hulme).

Were the filmmakers aware of the girls' new identities?

[jp] Although the filmmakers discouraged journalists and others from 'hunting down' the title characters in their new, anonymous lives, and Jackson and Walsh have been coy about the subject in many interviews, it turns out that the filmmakers were aware of the present identities of both Pauline and Juliet, through rumour and their own research, as early as 1992.

This is an interesting and important fact, because it may have influenced the writing and, especially, the editing of the film for foreign release.

It should be pointed out that Walsh and Jackson were by no means the only people who knew Pauline and Juliet's present identities at that time. Press articles since the release of "Heavenly Creatures" have characterized Pauline and Juliet's present identities as being "open secrets" among academics and the literati of New Zealand and Australia for many years. Indeed, it appears as if Anne Perry, for one, had kept in touch with several of her former acquaintances in New Zealand over the years.

What recognition has "Heavenly Creatures" received?

[Mir,aa,sb,mk] Prizewinner, Silver Lion Award, Venice Film Festival, 1994.
Prizewinner, Critics' Prize, Toronto Film Festival, 1994.
Nominated for Best Original Screenplay Oscar, 1994.
New Zealand Film Awards (1995):

Back Forward