Pauline Rieper and Juliet Hulme became overnight celebrities in their homeland of New Zealand in the Summer of 1954 after the brutal murder of Honorah Rieper (Pauline's mother). The two teenage girls, 16 and 15 years old respectively, were in the midst of a passionate and obsessive friendship that involved an elaborate fantasy world, mutually romanticized illnesses, and a lot of prancing and giggling. Their parent's were worried that their relationship might have evolved into lesbianism (which was considered a severe mental illness at the time), so they decided that the girls must be separated. Juliet's health was in decline, and her parent's decided to use this as a guise to send their daughter to South Africa "for the benefit of her health". Pauline wanted to go with her best friend. Mom, obviously, said no. The terror in the thought of being separated caused the girls to get themselves a brick that they shoved into a sock. The rest is bloody history.
This real life crime, and the events leading up to the murder, is the basis of 1994's Heavenly Creatures. The film is directed by Academy Award Winning director Peter Jackson long before we knew him as the King of Middle Earth. Jackson's greatest achievement in this film was his casting. Heavenly Creatures was the introductory film for two actresses that we have come to know throughout the years. Pauline is played by Melanie Lynskey and Juliet by one of acting's greatest treasures, Kate Winslett.
Lynskey portrays Pauline as troubled and completely malevolent toward her own family. She utilizes a signature look of absolutely convincing, churning disgust in every scene between herself and her mother. She writes in her journal daily about how she wishes she could escape the mundane word in which she lives.
When she meets Winslett's Juliet for the fist time during French class, a certain immediate attraction between the two is felt by the audience. It is not a sexual attraction, but a strong one nonetheless. Juliet is sophisticated, but lonely. She unwillingly spent 5 years in the Bahamas away from her parents as a child due to her contracting tuberculosis. Juliet undoubtedly sees life as fleeting, and is constantly desperate for human interaction. Where Pauline's aura is more of a scary sort, Juliet seems to be that specific type of teenage female who knows that she is in over her head, but relishes in every moment of her own mental chaos.
The two girls bond instantly. They believe that their friendship has opened a "Fourth World" that only they can see. The film features several scenes where the girls do nothing other than hold hands, run, and giggle as they navigate this world. They worship movie stars and opera singers, or "Saints" as they call them in their self-made religion. Adults and peers are out of the loop. Juliet and Pauline certainly want it that way. Jackson builds this fantasy world with special effects that allow the audience to experience each inhabitant and landscape as vividly as the young girl's who are making it up as they go along. The girls have found their happiness. As intense as it may seem to the outside observer - it is their happiness.
Once the parents in Heavenly Creatures become more involved, they realize there may be something unnatural about their daughters' friendship. They believe their daughters may be practicing lesbianism, and formulate a plan to keep them separated. Were the girls lesbians? I don't think so. But Jackson did include a giddy montage of the two girls kissing, bathing together, and expressing deep resentment toward anything that may threaten the security of their relationship. Jackson leaves this aspect of the film to interpretation. Lesbianism was not very well understood by anyone in 1954 New Zealand - which is hinted at greatly in the film.
All of this fierce character development feels like that butterfly-inducing part of any roller coaster where you slowly, tic by tic, climb your way to the edge of a steep drop. The third act of Heavenly Creatures is definitely that drop. The mental state of Pauline dramatically erodes when the plan to send Juliet to South Africa is introduced. She writes the plans for the murder in her journal (which is ultimately what got them both caught in real life), going as far as referring to the murder in her journal as "the happy event". Juliet is not just a spectator, but also an accomplice.
Juliet and Pauline are extremely flawed as characters. The two of them succumb to a gang-of-two mentality that takes them over the edge of madness. While the final scene plays out, the wait for one of the girls to realize the atrociousness of what they are doing is overwhelming. This is Jackson's most perfectly crafted cinematic moment - simultaneously more real and imaginary than anything in Middle Earth. As the credits begin to roll, we see that the two were tried and sent to prison for the murder. Too young for the death penalty, they were sentenced at "Her Majesty's request", and both released 5 years later under the condition that they never meet again.
It is worth pointing out that the real Juliet Hulme moved to the United Kingdom after her release, changed her name to Anne Perry, and became a best-selling author. When asked about her relationship with Pauline - she admitted that the friendship was intense, but they were not lesbians. She also claims to have only taken part in the murder because she believed it would keep Pauline from killing herself.
Pauline is also still alive (now known as Hilary Nathan) and is believed to be living in the UK village of Hoo in Kent. Her whereabouts have been disputed since her last known sighting.
Heavenly Creatures: A-