Heavenly Creatures - Introduction to the Film


Introduction to the Film

[jp] According to the structure of the film, there are no spoilers in this section.

"There are living amongst two dutiful daughters
Of a man who possesses two beautiful daughters
The most glorious beings in creation;...
...And above us these goddesses reign on high.

I worship the power of these lovely two
With that adoring love known to so few.
'Tis indeed a miracle, one must feel,
That two such heavenly creatures are real.
...And these wonderful people are you and I."

from "The Ones That I Worship"
Pauline Yvonne Parker, 1954


"This was a coldly, callously planned and carefully committed murder by two precocious and dirty-minded little girls. They are not incurably insane but incurably bad."

Alan W. Brown, Crown Prosecutor Christchurch NZ
August 28, 1954


Peter Jackson's film "Heavenly Creatures" was released in 1994 to widespread critical acclaim, including an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (1994). Although the film is a work of fiction--dazzling, imaginative and intense--the characters and events it depicts were inspired by real people and by a puzzling, deeply disturbing and tragic murder: the New Zealand "Parker Hulme" case.

As they were learned late Tuesday June 22, 1954, the bare facts are these: Mid-afternoon, on a bright winter day, two teenage girls were seen accompanying a woman into Victoria Park, just south of Christchurch, New Zealand. Half an hour later the girls returned alone, seeking medical assistance for the woman, claiming that she had been injured in an accident. Over the next two months, there was world-wide interest as a torrent of unusual revelations followed, one after another after another.

Jackson was meticulous about using actual locations, artifacts and even archival film footage in "Heavenly Creatures." His stated goal was to recreate precisely the environment, the known facts and the real people involved in the case. However, "Heavenly Creatures" is not a straight documentary. Nor is it a lurid, exploitative 'docu-drama.' There is no sensational, gratuitous plot twist, no surprise mystery murderer, no heavy- handed legal denouement, no smug courtroom moralizing.

And no pat answer to the central question: 'Why did the murder occur?' Jackson provides his own version of the raw data and it is up to the viewer to make deductions and draw conclusions. Jackson builds up the open framework of "Heavenly Creatures" from the established facts of the "Parker Hulme" case. And he reveals the bare facts up front, in effect giving away the plot of a lesser film before the opening titles. Then he fleshes out the bare framework he has laid out, with skill and panache, to give deeper insight into the intriguing title characters.

The issues dealt with in the film are sophisticated and complex ones--loneliness, friendship, attraction, repulsion, genius, ambition, passion, confusion, despair, love, murder. They are best suited to serious, quiet study and patient rumination. But the viewer is given no chance to think in "Heavenly Creatures"--Jackson demands the film be experienced viscerally and interpreted by gut instinct alone. It is an unnerving ride.

"Heavenly Creatures" is an unorthodox mix of wildly- inventive, exuberant character study and relentless, grim tragedy. The film offers a kind of giddy, operatic, hyper- ventilating portrait of adolescence which is bound to be familiar to any viewer past childhood. And yet...

And yet, at some elusive point, the story begins to drift from safe, familiar adolescent rites of passage. From then on, the viewer is hurtled into very, very dark and unsettling currents, with no chance to turn back.

The opening moments of "Heavenly Creatures" are jarring and riveting--Jackson flings us head first into an overpowering and confusing emotional maelstrom. Then, skillfully and methodically, he shoves our heads back under these intense emotional waters whenever we bob to the surface to gulp a breath, collect our wits and take stock of our feelings and our perceptions. Before he has finished with us, Jackson will let us frolic in the bright foamy surf of innocent adolescence and then he will stand, laughing, as we get sucked under by the riptide.

It isn't long before we are gasping and drowning, quite willingly, in the wonderful imaginations, the swooning passions and the crippling despairs of the two adolescent girls who are the focus of our attention. We ride the vortex of their story, with them, all the way down to its terrible, bleak center, clinging tight to these brilliant heavenly creatures as if they really could surface and fly away, to safety, with us in tow. They can't, of course, and we know it and they don't, and therein lies the terrible momentum and tragedy of "Heavenly Creatures."

Finally, cruelly, moments before we are dashed against the hard, ugly conclusion, Jackson wrenches us back into our own world, tearing us away from the story at the dreadful moment of the sad, brutal, inevitable murder. We are flung back to our comfortable shore, battered, stunned and haemorrhaging and deep in shock. How could things have ever gone this far? How could things have ever come to be so desperate? We are numbed and left feeling deeply sympathetic for the victim, and for the murderers we abandoned to their violent, lonely fate.

"Heavenly Creatures" concludes with many questions unresolved and many points still open for discussion. As the credits roll, to the last, bittersweet, ironic song from Mario Lanza, we are profoundly dispirited and saddened by what we have seen and what we have heard and by what we have felt under Jackson's guidance. And we are troubled by a vague, lingering suspicion that we may have been manipulated, by Jackson, into our tremendous, desperate compassion for these beautiful fallen angels. Were we? And what really happened those many years ago?

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