The legal defense of the girls was based upon a strategy of admitting they were homosexuals (whether or not it was true) to establish diminished mental capacity. The strategy backfired.
The prosecution played both ends of this stick. The public's revulsion of homosexuality was exploited, but experts were also called to declare that homosexuals were not criminally insane.
All of this ferocious, rabid public condemnation, focussed upon and fueled by the belief that the girls were lesbians, was well-known to the filmmakers, yet they chose to omit all mention of it from "Heavenly Creatures." The film only deals with events up to the immediate aftermath of the murder, and there is absolutely no mention of the trial, the publicity or public reaction in the film's preface or epilogue.
By making this choice, Jackson deliberately leaves the question about the girls' sexual orientations unanswered in the film, at least in terms of making an explicit statement. The viewer may choose to investigate and consider the issue, as did the public at the time of the murder, but Jackson will only provide raw 'background' material in "Heavenly Creatures" to be used as observations or input to a deduction.
So, as far as "Heavenly Creatures" is concerned, the official answer is:
Maybe the girls were lesbians. Then again, maybe they weren't. It is up to the viewer to decide.
Jackson: "What attracted me to this story was that it was complicated, about two people who are not evil, not psychopaths but totally out of their depth. Their emotions got out of control." [jp] Jackson: "They were totally devoted to each other and felt no one else in the entire world understood them. They felt their world would fall apart if they were separated...
"I don't think their relationship was sexually based. I think there was a lot of exalted play acting and experimentation involved and, to be perfectly honest, I don't think it's a relevant issue." [se] Jackson has also stated in interviews (e.g. Eye Weekly, Jan. 19, 1995) that he believes the question of the girls' sexual orientations is a "red herring."
Taking his statements at face value, Jackson implies the murder can't be explained simply to be a consequence of the girls' sexual orientations, whatever they may have been. Given the known public conclusion of '54 that the girls were lesbians, his statement is also a strong hint that he may not believe the girls really were lesbians after all (see 18.104.22.168).
And his statement puts the viewer on alert. Watch out! The film might be critical of the kind of simplistic, dogmatic, judgmental moralizing that was voiced by the citizens of Christchurch forty years ago. Or, it may be a warning that Jackson might try to trap the viewer, using false signs, into simplistic moral posturing.
Specifically, Jackson's statement is his way of giving notice that there may be misleading or irrelevant clues in "Heavenly Creatures" pointing to the girls being lesbians and/or pointing to the girls not being lesbians. He is not going to point out conclusions with a neon sign. We are on our own here.
In an interview, Melanie Lynskey and Sarah Peirse stated that "the film portrays the girls' relationship as innocent love."
Melanie Lynskey went on to say that "when Juliet was arrested she was asked if they had had a sexual relationship, and she said 'How could we? We're both women.'"
In the film, Juliet seems to have escaped official condemnation as an identified lesbian, before the murder, with the label of being sexually impressionable, gullible or easily swayed in sexual matters, but heterosexual. Unofficial worries about her sexual orientation are not made clear, but evidence points to her being considered to be heterosexual, unofficially, too. There is ample evidence that Dr Hulme wanted Juliet to be thought of in this way. If anyone had to bear the brunt of an accusation of homosexuality, according to Dr Hulme, it should be "that... Rieper girl."
There is no direct evidence presented in the film about external social pressure being placed on the families because of their daughters' relationship, though it is implied by Dr Hulme once or twice in conversations with Mrs. Hulme. This added pressure may have contributed to his decision to "resign," but it probably wasn't the main reason for his resignation. (see 3.1.25, 3.2.2, 7.10.1).
Much more extensive and explicit concerns over Juliet's being "lost to the world of men forever" were featured prominently in scenes (Heavenly Creatures, Draft #5, February 7, 1993, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, CA.) which were not part of the North American release version.
In real life, it was clear from public reaction and the sentencing that Juliet was not viewed as weak, or easily swayed at all. In fact, public impression was that she was by far the dominant personality. This public perception is a fascinating topic for discussion, and will be raised again in other sections.