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.