Harper's Bazaar

Heavenly Creatures
By Polly Frost

Harper's Bazaar, 12-01-1994, pp 76(1).

The real-life story that has emerged since the making of Peter Jackson' s film "Heavenly Creatures" is a strange and poignant one. The movie is based on a 1954 murder of a New Zealand woman by two teenage girls, one of whom was the victim's daughter. It was a famous crime in that country. The girls were sent to separate prisons, and after serving time they were given new identities and instructed never to see each other again.

Matricide may be the hardest to understand of the taboo crimes, and it's rare to see it depicted. The film prompted a journalist to investigate what had become of these girls. It turned out that one of them, Juliet Hulme, is now Anne Perry, a best-selling writer of Victorian murder mysteries. She is also a civic-minded and religious woman who lives near her mother in a small town on the Scottish coast, and her writing is often cited for its ethical content. (Pauline Parker, the daughter of the victim, has not been located at this time.)

Perry has responded to the uncovering of her former life in a particularly articulate and classy way. In an interview with the British press, she said, "What I did was wrong, very wrong, but I did not ever do it for hate or for gain. I did it because, insane as it sounds, I felt at the time that was my only option."

The script for Heavenly Creatures, which is based in part on Pauline Parker's diary, was written by Peter Jackson and Frances Walsh. In his notes on the film, Jackson has written that he views this story as having no villains.

Nonetheless, the film does have its grotesques. He gives a parodistic, '50s-style tour of Christchurch, the city in which the murder occurred. It's shown to be a poisonously prim place. Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) meet at a girls' school and quickly bond. Shy, overweight Pauline is disgusted by her parents, especially her mother, who represents a deadeningly conventional future. Juliet, the prettier of the two, is the daughter of a hypersexed, narcissistic mother and an uncomprehending father. She is a consumptive whose sophisticated parents, through convenient neglect, repeatedly sent her to sanatoriums to recover. The girls escape this world when they can: to movies starring '50s heartthrob Mario Lanza and to the woods, where they dance and strip to their undies.

They also begin working on a novel together, a send-up of the royal family of Great Britain that's violent and slightly pornographic, and populated by superheroes. Jackson dramatizes the story from what he sees as the point of view of the girls, putting passages from their book onto the screen. This ploy may be a well-meant one: He wants to take us into the girls' id world, to abolish the idea that they were evil. But what he really shows us is his dazzling and frenetic style. Jackson turns the story into a lesbian version of the tortured love affair between Natalie Wood and Warren Bentry in Splendor in the Grass. This isn't empathy, it's exploitation.

And is this really what was going on in their heads? In recent newspaper interviews, Anne Perry has said she was suffering from warped judgment brought on by a medication she was taking at the time of the murder. Jackson seems to have become so lost in his own expressionistic fantasia that he forgot that a woman was actually murdered and that two young girls had to live with the knowledge of what they had done.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Hearst Corporation