Teenage girls might be among the most melodramatic creatures on earth, as witnessed by their obsessive adoration of pop stars. Friendships between teenage girls can also be extremely melodramatic—as many teen flicks, from Heathers to Mean Girls, show—and many lesbians might remember that their first feelings of sexual attraction to other girls developed out of intimate adolescent friendships. When the hormonal melodrama of adolescence is combined with an intensely charged friendship in a time when lesbianism is classified as a mental illness, a story like the one told in Heavenly Creatures (1994) could be the result.
Heavenly Creatures opens with black-and-white newsreel footage of small-town Christchurch, New Zealand in the 1950s. It seems to be a pleasant, well-behaved provincial community with an old European feel—until the film cuts forward with a jerk to a scene of two bloodied girls running out of a park, one screaming “It’s Mummy! She’s terribly hurt!”
Mummy, it turns out, is Honora Rieper, and the two girls are her daughter, Pauline, and Pauline’s friend Juliet Hulme. In 1954, Pauline and Juliet were tried for the murder of Honora Rieper, and found guilty. New Zealand was mesmerized by their trial, in which Pauline’s diaries became part of the testimony and revealed what was believed to be a lesbian relationship between the two girls. Her diaries, which have never been published in their entirety, form the basis for the story told in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.
In 1952, 13-year-old Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) moved to Christchurch and began attending the Christchurch Girls’ High School, where she first met Pauline (Melanie Lynskey). The two girls were very different on the surface; Juliet was vibrant, cultured, and assertive, whereas Pauline was quiet, more passive, more stolid. But both shared a fascination with Italian opera singer Mario Lanza, both had experienced childhood illness and injury, and both loved to write stories.
They begin to spin tales of an imaginary land called Borovnia, peopled with queens and lovers and killers, and as their friendship deepens, they take to calling each other by the names of characters in Borovnia: Charles, Deborah, Diello, Gina. Heavenly Creatures portrays their friendship as incredibly intense. The girls kiss each other often and inexplicably tear off all their clothes and run around in the woods in their underwear.
It isn’t long before Juliet’s father, Dr. Hulme (Simon O’Connor), a professor at the local university, is convinced that the two girls have moved into inappropriate (that is, homosexual) territory. He confronts Pauline’s parents with his suspicions and suggests that it is Pauline who is making advances on his daughter. After Pauline is taken to a psychologist who promptly diagnoses her to be a homosexual, Pauline’s parents decide that she should no longer see Juliet.
But the girls are inconsolable when they are parted, and they are eventually allowed to see each other again. During their reunion, the two girls spend a night together enacting the various ways that their imaginary characters make love. In the film, this means that Pauline and Juliet make love, but it is unclear from court testimony whether the two girls ever consummated a sexual relationship.
Nevertheless, the girls’ friendship is so close that when they find out that Juliet’s parents are taking her out of the country, they are determined to find a way to remain together. Although they begin to save money for two tickets to America, Pauline soon decides that the best way for them to be together is to get rid of her mother, who she sees as standing in the way of her being with Juliet. On June 22, 1954, the two girls wrap a brick in a stocking and bring it with them to Victoria Park, where Pauline’s mother has taken them for tea and a stroll. After tea, they walk down into the park and beat Honora Rieper (Sarah Pierse) to death with the brick.
Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey deliver outstanding performances in Heavenly Creatures, and both went on to win numerous awards for their portrayals of Juliet and Pauline. Winslet (best known for Titanic) does an incredible job of playing the charismatic and feverishly imaginative Juliet, who eventually grew up to become the bestselling mystery novelist Anne Perry. Lynskey (Sweet Home Alabama, Ever After) is perfectly cast as Pauline, who changes from a quiet and peaceful girl to a glowering and angry one over the course of the film.
Peter Jackson, who is best known for his monumental Lord of the Rings trilogy, shows a hint of his taste for violence and special effects in the smaller-scale Heavenly Creatures, his first major film. The scenes of the murder are so intimate and awful that it’s painful to watch, and while this scene is brief in comparison to the numerous death scenes in Lord of the Rings, it has the same sickening, physical feel. Jackson also employs makeup in a unique way by covering the extras who play the characters from the girls’ imaginary land of Borovnia from head to toe in clay. This results in strangely blank-looking faces sculpted out of dark gray clay—a very creepy look that is heightened by the Frankenstein-like way these people move.
Heavenly Creatures ends with the violent, bloody moment of Honora Rieper’s murder; it doesn’t delve into the months that followed in which the girls’ friendship was dissected in court. That means it also avoids an extended examination of whether or not the girls were lesbians—which is both good and bad.
While the film doesn’t openly state that the girls are lesbians—in fact, all of the adults except for the psychiatrist avoid using the term “homosexual”—it clearly implies that Pauline and Juliet had a sexual relationship. This is suggested most blatantly by the scene in which the two girls reenact the ways they imagine the characters in Borovnia would make love. The two girls, who are lying in bed together, proceed to kiss each other and eventually embrace each other naked, obviously suggesting that they had sex. While the build-up to this scene makes their intense interest in each other seem a bit manic and disturbing, the love scene itself is quite sweet.
But if the love scene can be counted as a relatively positive portrayal of lesbianism, the rest of the film tends to make the girls’ love for each other appear psychotic. Much of this stems from the context of the 1950s when the story takes place. All of the adults view homosexuality as a mental illness (with the possible exception of Juliet’s mother, who doesn’t seem to have much of an interest in the matter), and homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness at that time. The distaste and revulsion expressed by Dr. Hulme and Mrs. Rieper about homosexuality are probably representative of the ways most parents would have reacted in 1954 when confronted with the possibility that their children were lesbians.
Historical accuracy is all well and good, but it just seems unfortunate that Heavenly Creatures, which is a very well-done film, is yet another movie about killer lesbians. There are movies based in real-life events, like Boys Don’t Cry, that take a truly tragic story and make something positive out of it. In comparison, the screenplay (written by Peter Jackson and Frances Walsh) fails to humanize the characters of Juliet and Pauline, something that could have been done by continuing the storyline with a lengthier coda in which we learned what happened to the two girls after they were released from prison. (They never saw one another again, and it seems that they both truly felt remorse for their crime.)
It may be that the real events behind Heavenly Creatures were simply not suitable for any kind of positive portrayal of lesbianism, but I can’t help but wish that the girls had been written as a little less mentally disturbed. As it is, watch Heavenly Creatures for excellent acting and direction, but not for its portrayal of lesbianism.