Heavenly Creatures

Peter Jackson
Kate Winslet, Melanie Lynskey, Sarah Peirse, Diana Kent
The Setup: 
True story of a very intense friendship between two girls that ends up leading to matricide.

This is Peter Jackson’s first wholly serious movie, after his early spatter comedies, and is also Kate Winslet’s first film. It is based on a true story, and the diary entries read aloud in the film are actually from the diary of Pauline Parker, played here wonderfully by Melanie Lynskey, before she fell to such crap fare as Coyote Ugly and Sweet Home Alabama. By the way, the real Juliet Hulme went on to become popular and prolific mystery writer Anne Perry! She apparently refuses to talk about the incident in the film and has never confirmed what actually happened.

The film opens with a 1950s documentary about Christchurch, New Zealand, which is all over-vivid colors and over-chipper happiness and contentment. This smash-cuts into footage of the girls running and screaming, blood spattered all over their faces. We flash back to 1953, in which Juliet is introduced as the new girl at school. She is quite superior and precocious, proclaiming her love of art and Mario Lanza. She and Pauline begin to bond because they are both excused from gym class because of health maladies and vast amounts of childhood time spent in hospitals. Juliet still has tuberculosis, although it is then not bothering her.

They start to spend vast amounts of time together, usually at the house of Juliet’s parents, who are wealthy. They invent an entire medieval-themed world of a royal family and their court, acting out scenes they’ve invented, and creating clay figures of its prominent characters. The film often segues into fantasy sequences in which the background changes around the girls or they interact with a world of walking clay figures. They are often running around in breathless excitement, seemingly excitement for the sheer enjoyment of excitement, and shunning anyone outside of their union. “We decided how sad it is for other people, who do not understand our genius,” Pauline writes. In their relationship, it seems that Juliet is content to be brilliant, and Pauline is delighted to worship her.

There is a tinge that flirts with lesbianism in their relationship, although more in a devotional than sexual way. But it comes out in the intensity of their love, absolute devotion to each other, and scenes in which they play at being the married king and queen, at one point enacting Juliet giving birth to Pauline’s baby [as the king and queen]. Both adult women later said that there was nothing lesbian in their relationship, although that question often simply means “did they have sex?” and excludes the deeper love and devotion that could also indicate a lesbian relationship.

Soon Juliet’s tuberculosis flares up, and her parents place her in a distant hospital while they leave the country for a few months. Juliet and Pauline exchange letters every day, written as the king and queen, in which they express their undying devotion. This separation came at a welcome time for both sets of parents, who had begun to become worried about the intensity of the friendship. Juliet’s upper class parents worry that the working-class Pauline is corrupting their daughter, and Pauline’s own parents seem to consider her the main source of the problem as well. They take her to a psychologist who outright says she is passing through a phase of lesbianism, which he classifies as a “mental disorder.” Around this time Pauline has started to focus on her mother as the source of her problems, and think what a wonderful day it would be if her mother were murdered.

There is upset at Juliet’s home, as her mother takes in a needy patient [she’s a psychologist], and is soon revealed to be having an affair with him, right in her own home. Juliet’s father loses his university job at this point, and it is decided that the parents will split, and Juliet move to South Africa. Both girls decide to go ahead and murder Pauline’s mother. They plan to bludgeon her with brick wrapped in a stocking. Their mental states at this time are characterized with numerous flights into the fantasy world of the clay royal family. Finally the “blessed day” arrives. They go on a picnic to a remote area with Pauline’s mother, distract her, and as she turns away, bash her with the brick. They have to hit her repeatedly, becoming covered with blood, and we connect this with them running, bloody, after the murder, as we saw in the film’s opening moments.

Soon after this the film ends, and we have some titles telling us that their plot was soon unraveled, and they were both sent to prisons, their sentence including the clause that they could never see each other again. The film portrays this with a fantasy sequence in which Juliet is on a cruise ship, slowly sailing away and leaving Pauline forlorn on the dock.

It’s quite good, very rich, and leaves you with a lot to think about. Not so much the story, which pretty much starts at point A, gets to point B and then stops, but the characterization, the way the story is told, and the texture of the relationship. I have a very learned Freudian psychologist friend who I often consult, and he had a little story I thought of while watching this film. He was in therapy with HIS analyst, and my friend said he didn’t understand the kind of hysteria young women can get into, for example the famous footage of girls swooning over the Beatles. His psychologist thought that for young girls, the excitement IS the excitement, and the very screaming and jumping and swooning is IN ITSELF the fun. This was on my mind while watching this film, as it really plays on that, as the two girls ramp up their fun by constantly running and screaming over made-up crises or triumphs.

What is interesting about the film is the way it shows the way the girls serve as an echo chamber for each other, amplifying their frenzy until it takes a murderous turn. It also does a good job of dramatizing the facts and creatively portraying their fantasy world, but without ever providing an easy answer or pat explanation as to why their friendship veered into murder in this case. Everyone’s performance is good, but the two leads are really wonderful and deliver committed performances that seem mature beyond their years. If you’re in the mood for an interesting psychological portrait with a major in female psychology and a minor in lesbian overtones and a murder thrown in for good measure, this one’s for you.

Should you watch it: 

Sure! It’s an interesting psychological film, well done, well acted, and with a murder.

MURDEROUS MAIDS is also a true story of two women, this time in an openly lesbian relationship, whose close association culminates in a murder.