Friday, June 9, 2023

A Helluva Film About Two “Heavenly Creatures”

When a prolific English mystery writer named Anne Perry died in L.A. this past April. I didn’t pay much attention. Then I  discovered that, under her birth name (Juliet Hulme), she had been one of the two young defendants in a gruesome 1994 murder trial that set all of New Zealand abuzz. Back in 1954, two teenaged girls who had met at a tony all-female prep school and  become inseparable friends were worried about being parted when one was sent off to stay with family in South Africa. That’s why Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme conspired to murder Pauline’s mother in cold blood. Because they were both well underage, they escaped New Zealand’s death penalty for their crime, but were sentenced to five years in separate prisons. Ultimately each of them  left New Zealand, found religious faith (one of them as a devout Roman Catholic, one as a Mormon), and led unexceptional lives.

 The obsessive relationship between Pauline and Juliet was captured in 1994 by New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson in Heavenly Creatures. It was this film that introduced to the world two actresses, then teenagers, who continue to have an impact on today’s entertainment industry. Melanie Lynskey was 16 when she was chosen from among 500 New Zealand schoolgirls to play ugly-duckling Pauline; she has since had a long, rich career as a character actress in films and on television (Two and a Half Men, Yellowjackets). Kate Winslet, just a bit older and more experienced as an actress, soon came aboard as the more glamorous Juliet. One year later, she received her first Oscar nomination, as well as worldwide attention, for her supporting role in Sense and Sensibility. (In total, she has racked up eight nominations, winning the golden statuette in 2008 for The Reader.)

 Peter Jackson is of course best known for fantasy epics, including the masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thinking back to my first viewing of Heavenly Creatures many years ago, I mostly recall the girls’ exuberant but ultimately lethal relationship. This time around, I was stunned by Jackson’s stylistic choices, and by the way he has inserted a fantasy world into a grim kitchen-sink kind of story. (Much of this material was taken directly from Pauline’s diaries.) The film, shot in Christchurch at the locations where the killing actually happened, unexpectedly begins with a kind of Technicolor promotional travelogue detailing the city’s charms: its leafy landscapes, its bustling city streets, its noble-looking institutes of higher learning. The locales we see in the travelogue appear to have no room for sinister behavior. But soon enough Juliet, the new kid in town, meets Pauline in a stuffy French class, and an obsessive friendship is born. Juliet, always the leader, includes Pauline in her imaginative construct of a “Fourth World,” a kind of pastoral heaven without the dreary religious stuff. At times we watch the two girls actually romping through this magical place. Elsewhere we see them role-playing the chief romantic protagonists in a fairytale kingdom of their own devising. Both girls like to draw and to fabricate items out of plastic, and these later become life-sized human and gargoyle figures that appear, armed with huge swords, in times of stress. One gargoyle also shows up, most unexpectedly, in a bizarre situation involving Pauline and one of the young male tenants who lodge in her parents’ home. It’s a key sequence that might help explain how far she is willing to go in resisting what she sees as her mother’s oppression.

 Prep school life, it appears, is far from prim.



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