Newsday, 11-16-1994

A Murder Story With No Villains
By Jack Mathews

Newsday, 11-16-1994, pp B09

* * * 1/2...Three and one half stars

HEAVENLY CREATURES. (R) New Zealand director Peter Jackson has turned his country's most notorious crime, the 1952 killing of a woman by her teenage daughter and her daughter's best friend, into a fascinating study of obsession and shared delusions. With Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Peirse, Diana Kent. 1:38 (violence, profanity). Angelika Film Center, Houston and Mercer, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, Broadway at 63rd, Manhattan. IN 1959, five years after committing one of the most notorious crimes in New Zealand history, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were released from prison, on the condition they never meet again. Peter Jackson's hauntingly fine "Heavenly Creatures" leaves no doubt in the viewer's mind why that ruling was necessary. Their crime was murder - premeditated, brutal, and personal - but what focused a stunned nation's attention on it were the ages of the killers, 16 and 15, the fact that the victim was one of their mothers, and the general presumption of a lesbian relationship. It is worth noting that since the movie was made, Juliet Hulme's identity has been revealed as the British mystery writer Anne Perry, and that Pauline Parker has been said to be working in a New Zealand bookstore. It was literature and their overly developed imaginations that brought these unlikely friends - Juliet, the outgoing, cultured daughter of affluent British immigrants, and Pauline, the withdrawn working-class New Zealander - together in the first place. "Heavenly Creatures," which begins and ends at the murder scene, totally avoids the tabloid phase of the story - the arrests, trial and inevitable hand-wringing over the collapse of moral values - and, by blending fantasy and reality throughout, takes us on an almost enchanted tour of the obsessions and shared delusions that lead the girls to their irrational act. Using Pauline's detailed and unguarded diary entries, Jackson goes behind the wall the girls build between themselves and society to create their own fantasy world. At first, their fantasyland is an Eden of manicured gardens, pools, unicorns and kite-size butterflies. But the more they feed each other's imaginations, the darker the world becomes, eventually evolving into a violent medieval kingdom that they preside over as king and queen. Eventually, their fantasy lives spill into their real lives, and they begin making both love and decisions based on the characters they are playing. By dramatizing their fantasies, through living versions of the clay models Juliet sculpts, Jackson invites us to experience the intoxication of the friends' increasingly dangerous obsession. It doesn't make us sympathize with them, exactly; they are too antisocial for that. But when circumstances in the real world threaten to permanently separate them, we can at least understand their logic for killing. Jackson has a tendency to oversell the exhilaration of the friendship. Half the time they are together, usually delirious over the music of their idol Mario Lanza, Pauline and Juliet are leaping around, shrieking and clutching each other like cheerleaders celebrating a winning touchdown. As the story progresses, with the parents becoming increasingly concerned, it becomes harder to think of the girls as real people. That may be Jackson's intention. He says in the production notes that his film is a "murder story with no villains." But, in fact, the teenagers become so grotesquely self-absorbed, especially compared to the woman they plan to kill, and the murder is carried out with such cold-blooded brutality, they end up, in the final scene, looking like "The Bad Seed" times two. Still, "Heavenly Creatures" is a powerful, troubling film, a horror fantasy constructed from real life, and featuring a host of terrific performances, particularly from Sarah Peirse, as Pauline's heartbroken mother, and Diana Kent, as Juliet's mother, a psychologist whose philandering ways with a patient indirectly inspires a murder.

Copyright 1994, Newsday Inc.