Published: Aug. 15, 2005 By

Our main idea for the day was to moider Mother. This notion is not a new one, but this time it is a definite plan which we intend to carry out. We have worked it out carefully and are both thrilled by the idea. Naturally, we feel a trifle nervous.

— Pauline Parker (From Parker’s unpublished diaries, reproduced from the trial transcripts in Julie Glamuzina and Alison J. Laurie, 75).

If anyone is inclined to turn away in horror from this depravity of the childish heart or feels tempted, indeed, to dispute the possibility of such things, he should observe that these works of fiction, which seem so full of hostility, are none of them really so badly intended, and they still preserve, under a slight disguise, the child’s original affection for his parents.

— Sigmund Freud, ‘Family Romances’, 224.

[1] Based upon the events leading up to the murder, in 1954, of Honora Parker, Heavenly Creatures (dir. Peter Jackson, 1994) dramatises the intense relationship between Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, the two adolescents responsible for the killing. Meticulously researched, the film recreates the ‘real’ world of 1950s New Zealand in which the girls lived, along with the fantasy existence they cultivated through their writing, model-making and play-acting. Combining realism and fantasy in a uniquely hybrid form, Heavenly Creaturesmakes extensive use of digital and special effects in order to produce a spectacular rendition of the imaginative world its two central protagonists inhabit. The film is additionally punctuated by excerpts taken from the diary Pauline Parker kept until her arrest. Periodically invoked to illuminate the girls’ private lives, the diary entries eventually represent a bleak commentary on the matricide at the heart of the film.

[2] Critics like Jonathan Romney, who are quick to acknowledgeHeavenly Creatures‘ achievement in terms of its style, form and composition have also expressed some anxiety over the film’s use of different genres. More particularly, the seductiveness of Jackson’s attempts to convey the fantasies of murderous adolescents raises certain questions about the ethics of identification as they relate to viewer and film-maker alike. Equally enthralled by the girls’ fantasies and the technical effects which enable them to be presented so vividly on screen, Jackson, otherwise known for his cult horror films, fails, in the view of Romney, properly to attend to the ‘forensic moments’ (Romney, 39) within the actual murder narrative. According to another critic, the representation of fantasy in Heavenly Creatures additionally calls into question the director’s objectivity. By choosing to contrast the colour and vibrancy of an imaginative realm with the drab and hostile reality of everyday life, Jackson not only presents a distorted view of both but also allows his film to give dubious priority to the psychic life. For this reason, the director becomes

like a physician who assumes a patient’s fever in order to understand her illness. He visualizes the landscape of Pauline’s and Juliet’s minds as a fetid garden, where fairytale plots of courtly love and castle intrigue blot out their edgy lives at home and school. The girls’ vision of Borovnia utterly mesmerizes them. Anyone who would break the spell — like Pauline’s sweet, anxious mum — must be a witch. Must be sentenced to death (Corliss, 64).

One of the ways in which to approach these criticisms is to situate Jackson’s film in relation to popular and widely endorsed views of what became known as the infamous ‘Parker-Hulme’ case. From the time of the murder, the more sensational aspects of the relationship between Pauline and Juliet (its homoeroticism, class-crossings and phantasmagoria) were immediately seized upon by the prosecution, defence and media alike. In direct contrast, Jackson is drawn to the case because, as he acknowledges in his production notes for the film, he understood it simply as ‘a murder story without a villain’, and seeks to offer a different perspective on what the Crown Prosecutor called the ‘two dirty-minded little girls’. By engaging so sympathetically with the guilty, refusing to condemn them for either their imaginations or their sexuality, Jackson (who co-scripted Heavenly Creatures with Frances Walsh), ensures that his film intervenes in the many debates generated by Honora’s murder. More specifically, the film-maker deliberately attempts to leave the exact nature of the homoerotic bond between the girls open to interpretation and, with this strategy, to resist the ‘historical equation between homosexuality and pathology’ (Hart, 75).

[3] While Heavenly Creatures refuses to connect the girls’ murderous impulses to a deviant sexuality, the film is less reticent when it comes to identifying other factors which may have a bearing on the violence enacted. In its reconstruction of the events leading to the murder, the film draws attention to the repressive forces at work within the historical and cultural context of 1950s New Zealand. These are juxtaposed with compelling and detailed renditions of the fantasy world, or psychic life, of the girls. In this way, Heavenly Creaturesconsistently underscores the pleasures of fantasy. At the same time, it demonstrates the extent to which such pleasures are both informed by and constitute a means of resisting repressive social and cultural forces. The film’s exploration of the politics of fantasy is no more apparent than in a number of key scenes in which aggressive impulses otherwise sublimated resurface to disrupt the conventions of the realist form. Increasingly difficult to confine and control, Diello, the assassinatory son Pauline and Juliet fantasmatically conceive between themselves, comes to the aid of his creators at critical points in their ‘real’ lives. Signalling a collapse of boundaries between fantasy and reality, he asserts his agency on behalf of the girls and rids them of their enemies: a priest; Pauline’s erstwhile lover and her psychiatrist are murdered on screen in turn. All of the victims in these scenes of imaginary violence are men who subject the girls to unwanted attentions. Representing different forms of patriarchal influence and control, they are dispatched in order to advance the film’s social critique. Their deaths, while showing the precarious nature of the mechanisms of sublimation, do not, however, work fully to explain the specificity of the matricidal crime the girls finally commit.

[4] In order to understand the way in which Heavenly Creatures plots this murder and traces out its logic, it is necessary to consider the way in which mother-daughter relations feature in the film. Yet what is surprising about the film’s depiction of the mother-daughter relationship is that it places more emphasis on the desires and conflicts defining Juliet’s relation to her mother than on those informing the Pauline/Honora interplay. As Heavenly Creaturesprogresses, it becomes clear that, despite the central significance of Pauline’s diaries, it is Juliet’s involvement in the murder of Mrs Parker, and what this reveals about the mother-daughter relationship, that really counts.

[5] While Jackson’s use of Pauline’s diary to structure the narrative means that he undoubtedly takes his cue from the girls themselves, when it comes to the depiction of mother-daughter relationships, the daughters’ perspective does not go unchallenged. Indeed, the film is at its most direct (and least subtle) when it calls into question or undercuts the girls’ perceptions of the mother-figures who feature in their lives. The alternative maternal representations advanced by the film introduce a crucial element of dissonance and work to distance the overall narrative from the partial view offered by the girls. As it focuses on the kinds of mothering the girls’ receive and the idealised maternity for which they yearn, the film dramatises the gulf between reality and fantasy. Thus highlighting the girls’ delusions with regard to the mother-figure, Heavenly Creatures also draws attention, crucially, to its own ideological investment in the maternal.

[6] Heavenly Creatures features two mother-daughter relationships which, in a number of instances, are deliberately placed in parallel in order to demonstrate the different experiences of mothering each girl has had. These relationships are meant to provide an insight into the psychic reality of both Pauline and Juliet. In the case of Pauline,Heavenly Creatures suggests that her desire for a different kind of mother and her idealisation of her friend’s family is based upon an awareness of class and cultural difference. For her, the act of matricide is meant to erase origins and effect a transition into another, more desirable, familial realm. Juliet’s violence, on the other hand, is traced back to a fear of maternal abandonment. The terror arising from her separation anxiety leads her to project her rage upon the woman — Mrs Parker — who is seen to stand between her union with Pauline. Scapegoated within the psychic economy played out by both girls, Mrs Parker eventually becomes a victim of a displaced and deluded rage. By tracing the psychic logic underpinning matricide through these contrasting narratives, Heavenly Creaturesdemonstrates that even though Jackson resists the equation between lesbianism, insanity and criminality, he is less able, in the end, to adopt a critical view of the ideologies which inform the maternal. In its exploration of violence, the film substitutes one culpable mother for two villainous daughters so that it, no less than the killers themselves, becomes caught up in a curious displacement. It is to the position occupied by the mother in a film otherwise dominated by the daughters’ fantasy life that this reading of Heavenly Creatures now turns.

Staging the Family Romance

[7] Heavenly Creatures begins with archive footage in which Christchurch, New Zealand is promoted as an idyllic city. This gives way, abruptly, to a series of tracking shots following the path taken by two girls as they run frantically through woods. Rapidly cut, these jarring shots take in the girls from a multitude of different angles and distances. They are intercut with a second, monochrome sequence showing the same girls, adorned in Summer dresses, again in motion. Running along the deck of a passenger-ship awaiting departure, the girls take turns to call out ‘Mummy!’ excitedly. This twice-repeated word appears directed at a woman who, along with her male companion, stands at the ship’s rail looking away from the camera and fast-approaching girls. This woman is later revealed as Mrs Hulme, mother of Juliet. The man who shares the frame is Mr Hulme. As the couple both respond to the girls by turning, the film cuts away from this frame before the move is complete, returning the viewer to the woods. Here, the girls are seen finally to emerge from the foliage as they run, screaming hysterically, toward an isolated tea-room. Coming to investigate the commotion, a woman is confronted by the two girls. A close-up reveals in detail their blood-soaked condition. Pausing only to catch her breath, Pauline cries, ‘It’s Mummy! She’s terribly hurt’, while her companion exclaims, ‘Please! Help us!’. At this point the written prologue conveys the following information while also announcing a cinematic allegiance to and simultaneous appropriation of Pauline and Juliet:

During 1953 and 1954 Pauline Yvonne Parker kept diaries recording her friendship with Juliet Marion Hulme.

This is their story.

All diary entries are in Pauline’s own words.

From the outset, Heavenly Creatures signals, through a complex medley of visual, auditory and symbolic representations, the overriding significance the mother-figure will assume in the course of its own account of the relationship between Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet). The bloodied girls who take flight through the undergrowth at the film’s opening appear to be propelled toward a dramatic birthing. Fleeing from what is later revealed to be the scene of their crime and the body of the dead mother, the same girls are also seen, albeit in a different guise, to run expectantly toward the mother on the ship, who remains, nonetheless, out of reach. At this early juncture it is unclear what status and significance the shipboard sequence has in the film. It is restaged, however, with significant differences, at two later points. On the evening before the murder, when Juliet stands alone on her balcony, the aria she sings is accompanied by a sequence in which girls on the ship reach the couple and are embraced by them. The intimate grouping is completed as the girls kiss one another on the mouth and their action is acknowledged approvingly through the looks of Mr and Mrs Hulme. Coming at the close of the film, the final variation of the shipboard sequence is spliced together with the violent attack on Mrs Parker. With each blow from her assailants, the cries emitted by Mrs Parker are matched by those of Pauline, who, in the parallel sequence, stands among the crowd at the dock as the ship departs without her. Doubling mother and daughter in this way, the film draws attention to the grim irony of a murder which is designed to enable the daughter’s survival but, according to the visual analogy, only brings about her psychic disintegration. At the same time, Juliet, who attempts, from aboard the vessel, to reach out to Pauline leads her parents to restrain her. Juliet’s last words, ‘I’m sorry’, can be read as either a sign of regret for an intended union not secured by the matricide or, conversely, as an articulation of remorse for the killing.

[8] With these three connecting sequences, Heavenly Creaturesunderscores the extent to which the fantasy life of the adolescent murderers informs their actions. In the first version, the girls seek to embrace the mother they have assumed as their ideal. In the second, which sees this fantasy fulfilled, the ideal includes both a mother and father who accept the bond between their biological and surrogate daughters. Only in the last sequence, which offers a symbolic representation of the effects brought about by the act of murder, does the intimate connection between the fantasy and the catastrophe to which it leads become clear. Taken together, these scenes plot a deadly trajectory in which the mother — both the woman from whom the girls flee as well as the woman whose embrace they seek — features in a pivotal role.

[9] In his short essay, ‘Family Romances’ (1909), Freud turns his attentions to the fantasy life of the child. He argues that the child’s attempts to differentiate itself from its parents and their authority provides the key to ‘the whole progress of society’, since such progress ‘rests upon the opposition between successive generations’ (Freud, 221). Tracing the course of this oppositional development, Freud asserts that the child’s idealisation of its parents and the desire to become like them gives way, once the child develops intellectually, to a more critical view. The child’s disaffection with its parents is fuelled by a process of comparison. As Freud puts it: ‘he gets to know other parents and compares them to his own, and so acquires the right to doubt the incomparable and unique quality which he had attributed to them’ (Freud, 221). The child’s gradual sense of estrangement from and dissatisfaction with the family dynamic is increased when he or she begins to understand the social and cultural hierarchies structuring society at large. At this time, the child invokes the resources of the family romance; the child’s ‘imagination becomes engaged in the task of getting free from the parents of whom he now has a low opinion and of replacing them by others, who, as a rule, are of higher social standing’ (Freud, 222-3). This fantasy takes a new turn when the child gains sexual knowledge. Realising that its biological mother cannot be called into question, the child instead directs its attentions to the father-figure. Imagining its own bastardisation (or that of its siblings), the child invents an alternative genealogy for itself and in so doing casts the mother’s fidelity into doubt. Through this fantasy, the child substitutes a more acceptable figure for its unsatisfactory father, reinventing the family structure in order to meet its more grandiose sense of identity and place.

[10] Heavenly Creatures is a film which shows a version of the family romance played out with a vengeance by Pauline Parker as she discards her own origins and takes the Hulmes as her surrogate family. The way in which this version of Freud’s model operates within the film can be explored by considering the film’s dual focus on the fantasy and ‘real’ lives of his central characters. Such a double focus in turn lends support to Freud’s central recognition that although the family romance has its origins in a psychological and emotional dissatisfaction with the family dynamic, the fantasy it articulates is nonetheless informed by the social and cultural context in which the child lives. This point is borne out in relation to Pauline, as her growing disaffection with her family is reinforced by contact with the Hulmes.

[11] The friendship between Pauline and Juliet is first forged through their shared imagination, along with their status as outsiders in the community in which they live. Early in the film, Pauline’s marginal position is established through a sequence of shots which show her unorthodox entry into the regimented school. The dishevelled girl climbs over the fence separating her home from the schoolyard and, once inside the school, adopts a defensive, painfully shy demeanour. In contrast, Juliet, the relatively precocious English girl, arrives in her father’s car and, upon entering the classroom, exudes a confidence which enables her first to correct the teacher’s French grammar and then to subvert a formal art class. In this latter scene, Juliet ignores the instruction to draw Pauline, favouring instead a picture of  ‘St George’ (who bears a striking resemblance to Mario Lanza) ‘and the Dragon’. Accounting for her apparent erasure of Pauline, Juliet tells the incredulous art teacher: ‘I was going to pop her on a rock but I ran out of space.’ Later, Pauline will not only come to share Juliet’s imaginative landscape but also play a crucial part within it. Attracted, for now, to Juliet’s rebellion and her artistry, Pauline praises the picture — ‘I think it’s fantastic!’—  and, in so doing, sets their friendship underway.

[12] Having established the initial connections between Pauline and Juliet, Heavenly Creatures goes on to illustrate the backgrounds of each girl. It begins by showing Honora Parker (Sarah Peirse) as she busies herself in the kitchen, efficiently negotiating her husband and the affairs of a house which is home to family and boarders alike. In the mother-daughter exchange which follows, Pauline’s automatic ‘I got an A’ in response to her mother’s question, ‘How did it go?’, shows the daughter reading her mother’s chief interest as a request for an update on academic performance. Mrs Parker’s satisfied smile when she hears her daughter’s response additionally confirms the nature of the mother-daughter relationship at this point. Presented as drab and careworn but essentially benevolent, Mrs Parker is shown throughout the film to place her daughter’s well-being at the forefront of her concerns. Although she does not always understand Pauline’s adolescent crises she consistently tries to nurture, protect and guide the girl. The relationship between the two is often conflictual but, for the most part, presented in the film in such a way as to suggest that it represents a ‘normal’ mother-daughter dynamic. Adopting a traditional female role in terms of both maternal and domestic duties, Honora is invariably seen labouring about the house. This portrait of Mrs Parker is, as the film progresses, increasingly counterpointed with a succession of scenes which highlight the differences between her performance as mother and Mrs Hulme’s. Taken together, these representations of two women not only illustrate the different kinds of mothering received by Pauline and Juliet, but also reveal the extent to which Heavenly Creatures seeks to connect the fate of Pauline’s mother to the psychological damage Mrs Hulme inflicts on her own daughter.

[13] In one of the early scenes showing the development of the girls’ friendship, Juliet approaches her new acquaintance with a request to see the scar which runs down Pauline’s leg. Rewarded with a view of the damage caused by surgery, Juliet expresses her admiration for the scar and, granted permission to touch it, shudders as she traces its contours. This physical scar, and the intimacy which its exposure suggests, leads Juliet to initiate an exchange of confidences with Pauline concerning her own scars. While she is at first concerned here with the physical signs left by past respiratory illness, Juliet also gives indications of the emotional and psychological wounds she carries. Her narrative relates not only to the sickness she has suffered but also to the extensive period of ‘recuperation’ in the Bahamas she endured. As Juliet recalls these events, her memories are visually presented through a scene which shows a dejected young girl lying in a bed in an otherwise empty hospital room. In contrast to Juliet’s apparent abandonment by her parents (‘I didn’t see them for five years but we’re together now and Mummy’s promised they’ll never leave me again’), Pauline’s reciprocal narrative conjures an image of a girl, again lying in a hospital bed, but this time with her anxious parents huddled at her side.

[14] In this early exchange of confidences, Pauline remembers the pain of her past illness while an exuberant Juliet seeks to reassure her: ‘Cheer up! All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s all frightfully romantic!’. Aside from Pauline’s dejection, what is most striking about this scene is the fact that Juliet’s period as a convalescent appears somewhat excessive even given the trials of respiratory illness. Apparently oblivious to this discrepancy, Juliet instead expresses her elation at the present state of affairs, in which she finds herself reunited with her parents and satisfied with her mother’s ‘promise’ that she will not suffer future separation. This promise, along with the faith in which it is received by an optimistic Juliet, momentarily vanquishes the previous image of an abandoned child. However, as the film goes on to establish, the invisible scars to which Juliet refers when speaking of respiratory illness have emotional and psychological correlatives which are less easily banished. These later manifest themselves through the intensity of Juliet’s bond with Pauline and the violence with which she meets the threat of separation. Providing the key to the girl’s psychic history, Juliet’s narrative reveals and also contains the anxieties arising out of her abandonment and, more specifically, the early and prolonged severance of the mother-daughter relation. Going on to demonstrate that Juliet’s faith in her mother and the promise she makes is unfounded, Heavenly Creatures also shows the continued effects of Juliet’s primary trauma. In so doing, it comes closest to offering its viewers a way of reading the pathological impulse which produces matricidal violence.

[15] In direct contrast to the small town-house in which Pauline lives, the Hulme residence, named ‘Ilam’, is an enormous detached residence set amidst landscaped gardens, complete with river and woods. Pauline’s first glimpse of these vistas and of the romantically bedecked Juliet, as she enacts the role of medieval damsel, confirms the economic, spatial and imaginative differences between the two girls. In the first scene depicting Pauline’s home life, she is seen dashing into the house in order to pre-empt a boarder who wishes to lay claim to the gramophone. Although she manages to eject her father (Simon O’Connor) from the room, his parody of Lanza nonetheless spoils Pauline’s rhapsodic enjoyment of the music. She is left in the presence of the defeated boarder who, witness to the brief father-daughter conflict, is somewhat overwhelmed by Parker domesticity. When Pauline is subsequently introduced to the Hulme’s sumptuous homestead, the extent to which her own familial and domestic space is curtailed by the economic imperative the boarders represent is clearly underlined.

[16] In a scene which echoes Pauline’s homecoming, Juliet is also seen racing into the family home in order to requisition the gramophone in pursuit of her own passion for Lanza. Juliet’s entrance, like Pauline’s, is preceded by a brief scene showing the interaction between her parents. Whereas Mr Parker had appeared attentive both to his wife and the concerns of the home, Mr Hulme (Clive Merrison) is absorbed in his work. Barely registering his wife’s presence, he features as a stereotypically absent-minded academic with little interest in domestic life or time for his wife. Interrupting this domestic snapshot, Juliet bounds into the sitting-room, with Pauline in tow, uttering angry complaints about her younger brother’s antics (she demands that Pauline be compensated for the Lanza record he has broken). Ignoring her parents’ gentle hints, Juliet gleefully selects the music which will drive her father toward his study and, in lieu of the replacement record, compensate her friend. Introduced to Mrs Hulme (Diana Kent) for the first time, the stupefied ‘Paul’, as Juliet calls her, is subjected to a brief and slightly puzzled evaluation by her friend’s mother. Later, in a sequence of rapid shots showing Pauline’s absorption into the Hulme household, Pauline is seen seated for a formal dinner with the family, while the camera pointedly shows her taking cues on middle-class etiquette from Juliet’s mother.

[17] In these homecoming scenes, both girls are seen to compete for domestic space in order to indulge their artistic passions. However, whereas Pauline must fight off both the boarder and her father in order to stake her claim, Juliet’s spatial invasion, despite her parents’ protests, effectively drives her father away. His rapid departure is assisted by the exuberance of the girls who spin and dance to the music while Mrs Hulme looks on. As their shared rapture disrupts domestic and familial orders, it is clear that Juliet — by virtue of class and culture — is more able to indulge her imagination than her friend. Juliet’s home and its environs subsequently become the playground in which the girls nurture their fantasies.

[18] While these early scenes hint at the extent to which Pauline is seduced by Juliet’s opulent lifestyle, it is Juliet’s first visit to Pauline’s home which confirms the way in which class functions in the relationship. Pauline’s New Year resolution, announced in the voice-over — ‘to be more lenient with others’ — is sorely tested as she makes her anxious preparations for Juliet’s arrival, warning off another stray boarder from the ‘private function’. Confronted with the poised, mannered and somewhat eccentric Juliet, Pauline’s parents remain polite but bemused, not least by her heartfelt rendition of the story she and Pauline are writing together. In order to cover the awkward pause which follows this lengthy performance, Mrs Parker tries to steer the conversation toward common ground. She does so by mentioning Juliet’s mother, a one-time radio broadcaster. This lead is taken up by Juliet, who provides a protracted commentary on her mother’s latest professional incarnation as marriage-guidance counsellor. Her narrative voice-over is accompanied by a rapid succession of scenes depicting her mother at work: ‘In four years she’s only had four divorces. She should really be working for the UN’. Juliet’s obvious pride and enthusiasm is, however, ironically counterpointed by the final sequence of shots. Instead of the couples who have appeared before her, the camera pauses to show Juliet’s cigarette-smoking mother interviewing a male client. As Mrs Hulme’s characteristically aloof and professional stance dissolves, the flirtatious subtext of the formal exchange between client and counsellor becomes evident. At this juncture, Juliet’s unintentionally humorous commentary, ‘Mummy’s got a special technique called “deep therapy” . . .  it’s very popular’, highlights the girl’s erroneously idealised reading of her mother. Developing its portrayal of a bored, restless woman, the film hints at Mrs Hulme’s coming infidelity. In addition, her instruction to the male client, ‘Tell me how you feel, Bill’, suggests the paradoxical position she assumes in the film. For while she devotes her professional life to the well-being of others and is, in this instance, guided by an additional sexual motive, Mrs Hulme otherwise proves unwilling or unable to negotiate the demands of the emotional life.

[19] As well as showing the gulf between Juliet’s perceptions of her mother and the ‘reality’ (as it is constructed in the film), this tea-time scene focuses on Pauline’s increasing humiliation when her home-life is revealed to Juliet. Aggrieved by her parents’ apparent provincialism, she squirms when they refer to her as ‘Yvonne’ (her middle name) and is mortified when her father unashamedly admits his fishmongering trade: ‘He’s the manager’, she quickly tells Juliet in a last-ditch effort to retrieve the situation. The arrival of the boarder, the Parker’s suspicion of the notion of ‘marriage guidance’ and her father’s attempts to engage Juliet in conversation concerning the artistic life, all contribute to Pauline’s distress. Although Pauline adds little to the conversation, her discomfort is communicated through her facial expression, downcast gaze and defeated posture. Occasionally glancing in Juliet’s direction during her ordeal, Pauline’s gaze is eventually returned and rewarded. This occurs when Mr Parker attempts to humour the girls for their creativity. As he does so, the camera focuses on Juliet, whose enthusiastic gaze in turn alights upon Pauline. As Juliet announces the scope of their ambitions — the publication of their co-authored novel — Pauline is seen to lift her head and hold Juliet’s gaze. Responding both to the plans and the look which so pointedly encompass her, Pauline smiles in gleeful satisfaction. This moment, in which Pauline appears to be elevated — both literally and metaphorically — above her origins, underscores the growing solidarity which, despite their obvious differences, exists between the girls. It is picked up in the voice-over in which an extract from Pauline’s diary echoes Juliet’s use of the word ‘we’ to describe their shared creativity. As well as drawing attention to the dissolution of the boundaries demarcating identity, this diary entry suggests the girls’ reconciliation with a world which fails adequately to understand their desires: ‘We have decided how sad it is for other people, that they cannot appreciate our genius. But we hope the book will help them to do so a little, although no-one can fully appreciate us’. Despite their developing symbiosis, Juliet’s storytelling and plans for publication suggest that the girls do not, at this point, solely inhabit a private fantasy but are willing to communicate their inner visions to the world. This state of affairs changes dramatically as the girls experience an increasing alienation and their very union comes under threat.

[20] In perhaps the most telling sequence in Heavenly Creatures, the significance of Juliet’s early separation from her parents, and the way in which it informs her relationship to Pauline, is demonstrated. As the girls enjoy an Easter retreat at Port Levy with Juliet’s parents, a series of snapshots shows the extent of Pauline’s integration into the Hulme family. The idyll is rendered complete through a scene in which Mrs Hulme brushes Pauline’s hair as the girl relaxes at her feet and Juliet lazes nearby. As she indulges Pauline, Mrs Hulme seems unaware that she has assumed the role of mother-surrogate in relation to the girl. When she responds to Juliet’s latest novel-writing account by praising Pauline, the girl’s delight at the attention she receives is marked. For once, Pauline bears an open expression carrying none of the anxiety which previously dominates her cinematic portrayal. The significance of this scene is further underlined when the two girls stand together in front of Mrs Hulme. Joining hands, they adopt a coyly regressive pose, swinging their arms to and fro in the manner of much younger children. Their afternoon repose, which sees both girls affectionately mothered by Mrs Hulme, is, however, brought to a premature close by Juliet’s father, who, characteristically, seems oblivious to the emotional nuances of the relationships around him. His reference to passports alerts Juliet to the prospect of yet another parental absence. Mrs Hulme’s attempt to placate Juliet by insisting on the necessity of Mr Hulme’s overseas trip is greeted with her daughter’s plaintive, ‘You’re not going, are you Mummy?’. While clearly aware of the effect of her husband’s blunder, Mrs Hulme’s attempts to reason with Juliet fail to alleviate the girl’s separation anxiety and she ultimately proves unwilling to negotiate the emotional scene which follows. Quickly justifying and playing down her own travels, Mrs Hulme finds an excuse to vacate the scene and avoid her daughter’s reaction. In her absence, Juliet takes flight. Even as Juliet’s dramatic response to her parents’ news symptomatises the lasting damage she has sustained as a result of her prior separation, it also recalls the earlier scene in which she had managed to contain her anxieties by placing her faith in her mother’s promise. Shown to be duped and betrayed by Mrs Hulme, Juliet escapes the turmoil which ensues by invoking the fantasy world. In the following scene,Heavenly Creatures makes an explicit connection between Mrs Hulme’s treatment of Juliet and Juliet’s own use of fantasy as defence.

[21] Pauline’s dogged pursuit of the distraught Juliet leads her into the hills where she finds her friend sobbing in a foetal position. Although she tries to comfort Juliet, Pauline’s efforts are quickly eclipsed by Juliet’s epiphanic experience. Gazing beyond the frame, Juliet’s expression registers the wonder of the vision which comes athwart her and transforms her grief. Although the viewer and Pauline are momentarily excluded from the vision, Juliet takes her friend’s hand and leads her toward what is revealed to be a kingdom magical and surreal. At this moment, the girls discover the ‘key’ to the Fourth World which facilitates entrance to another dimension. In the alternative theology Juliet has developed and Pauline shares, this event, occurring on Good Friday, inevitably assumes a heavenly resonance:

Everything was full of peace and bliss. We then realized we had the key. We have an extra part of our brain that can appreciate the Fourth World. Only about ten people have it. On two days, every year, we may use the key and look into that beautiful world we have been lucky enough to know on this day of finding the key to the way through the clouds.

Triggered by Juliet’s fear of abandonment as well as her mother’s present disengagement, the emergence of the Fourth World is clearly shown to represent Juliet’s defensive attempt both to mask and compensate for her sense of loss. Placing the mother at the centre of Juliet’s psychodrama, the film identifies a rupture in the mother-daughter bond as the source of Juliet’s imaginative escape, as of the violence with which she comes to defend her friendship. For, as it dramatises the continued effects of Juliet’s early trauma along with the subsequent absences — physical and emotional — she endures,Heavenly Creatures also shows how the mother-daughter dynamic becomes the blueprint for Juliet’s relationship with Pauline. Even as Juliet’s visionary response to her mother’s treatment suggests a direct correlation between the needs her fantasies fulfil and the inadequate care she receives, it is also significant that she leads Pauline into the Fourth World. By presenting the relationship between the girls in this light, the film symbolically figures Pauline’s participation in Juliet’s strategies of defence. When this participation is later reciprocated by Juliet, the result will be murder.

[22] With the return of Juliet’s tuberculosis, the possibility of another separation — this time from Pauline — is introduced. Again, in contrast to Mrs Hulme, Pauline’s mother is careful to monitor her daughter’s depressed response — she has taken to her bed — to this turn of events. Visited by her mother, she is urged to eat the food she otherwise denies herself and reminded of her past history of illness: ‘You may have forgotten that you were once a very sick little girl, but I haven’t.’ As if further to underscore the differences between Mrs Parker’s attentiveness and the neglect of the Hulmes, and Mrs Hulme in particular, Heavenly Creatures repeats its earlier gesture of cutting from one sick-bed scene to another. The critique of Mrs Hulme that the film has thus far advanced is, in this instance, unwittingly articulated by Mrs Parker. As she fusses over Pauline, she reassures her of Juliet’s well-being by asserting that ‘her parents won’t be going overseas now. They’ll cancel their trip. Don’t worry about Juliet.’ At this point the film cuts to a pale, sickly and bedridden Juliet in the sanatorium. Positioned in the background while his wife is seated on the bed, Mr Hulme reasons that Juliet’s four-month stay will pass quickly, even as the coughing and retching of the other patients forms the background to his speech. For her part, Mrs Hulme, moving closer to look directly into her daughter’s eyes, opines, clearly half-heartedly, that: ‘It’s not too late to cancel our travel arrangements, if that’s what you want.’ Coercing Juliet to make the unselfish choice, Mrs Hulme greets her daughter’s submission to the original plans with an approving smile, remarking that ‘It’s for the good of your health, darling.’ Leaving their tearful daughter, the Hulmes are viewed as they exit the hospital. Mrs Hulme, in particular, is careful to sidestep the patients who roam the corridors and, in another distancing gesture, nervously adjusts her gloves. Once more the film parallels the responses of Mrs Parker and Mrs Hulme to their daughters, finding the latter wanting.

Removing an ‘Obstacle’

[23] In order to make their separation pass more quickly, Pauline decides that she and Juliet should exchange letters in which they write either in propria persona or as protagonists from the Kingdom of Borovnia. As she records in her diary: ‘I wrote a six-page letter as Charles and a two-page letter as Paul’, adding, with relief, that Juliet ‘has entered into the spirit of the thing greatly’. At this point in the film the distinction between the real and fantasy worlds begins to break down and the alternative identities the girls have nurtured begin to dominate their everyday lives. Without Juliet and the Hulmes, Pauline reverts back to her former humdrum existence of domestic chores and duties but, in her letters, adopts a fantasmatic alter ego: ‘Affairs of the state continue to occupy my time. I have to report that the lower-classes are terrifically dull. . . .  Only yesterday, I was compelled to execute several peasants just to alleviate the boredom.’ At the same time, Juliet is also seen to rely upon the fantasy world in order to transcend her immediate crises. Confronted by a visiting clergyman, grotesquely rendered by the distortions of the camera-angle as he preaches to her, she conjures the assistance of Diello. Emerging to dispatch the interfering vicar, Diello’s presence signals the first moment in the film at which the violence of the fantasy world can no longer be contained. Such violence erupts into the realist narrative in both this scene and a later one where Pauline is confronted by a psychiatrist wishing to delve into the secrets of her sexual pathology. He too is slaughtered by Diello.

[24] The reunion between Pauline and Juliet at the sanatorium is overseen by Mrs Parker, whose face registers slight signs of anxiety at the exuberance of their embrace. Astute enough to note the significance of the unopened letters Juliet has received from her parents, she provokes the girl’s anger when she tries to reassure her that her enforced isolation is in her ‘best interests’. This phrase, with its echoes of Mrs Hulme’s justifications for leaving Juliet, incites the girl’s only tirade against her parents and their recurrent absences. Even though Juliet manages to curb her fury, the significance of this scene and of Juliet’s misdirected anger becomes more apparent in the light of the events which bring about Mrs Parker’s death. Just as Pauline takes on Mrs Hulme as an idealised surrogate-figure, Juliet appears briefly to substitute one mother for another. The anger she fails to vocalise within her own family is directed at Mrs Parker.

[25] As the film consistently demonstrates through its portrayal of Mrs Parker and Mrs Hulme, both girls seem to be taken in by appearances. The drab Mrs Parker, always seen busying herself with the running of the house, assumes a more traditional gendered role. Clearly concerned for her daughter’s well-being and advancement, she lectures her on her performance at school and, later, on her sexual transgressions. Fulfilling the stereotypical role of sacrificial mother, she wishes her daughter to excel in the ways in which she herself has not. For this reason, she incurs her daughter’s loathing and increases Pauline’s dependence on ‘someone sympathetic’ — Juliet in the Borovnian role of Deborah — to her domestic and familial plight. As the conflict with her mother escalates, Pauline increasingly relies on the two forms of alternative genealogy she has created for herself via the ruses of the family romance — the regal lineage she shares with Juliet in Borovnia and the Hulmes she has taken for her surrogate family. Oblivious to these fantasies, Mrs Parker is seen as a woman who mothers Pauline to the best of her abilities but whose daughter is increasingly effectively beyond her reach.

[26] While Pauline and Juliet idealise the Hulmes, Heavenly Creaturescontinues to target both the couple and their marriage. It shows how Mrs Hulme not only embarks upon an affair with Bill Perry, but also manoeuvres him into the household as a bogus convalescent, apparently duping both Juliet and her own husband in the process. Suspecting Bill’s amorous agenda but convinced of her mother’s disinterest, Juliet’s eventual discovery of her mother’s infidelity drives her and Pauline to seek solace with Mr Hulme, ‘a man who possesses two beautiful daughters’. Confiding their escape-plans to him, the girls are, unlike the viewer, unaware of his suspicions of their relationship, as of the steps he has already taken to put them asunder. His dubious interest in his daughter and her friend is established in the film through a number of scenes in which he surreptitiously watches their physical interaction, noting its intimacy. In response, he approaches the Parkers and voices — albeit in a coded manner — the anxieties such homoeroticism generates. Using his class and professional status to manipulate the Parkers, he identifies Pauline’s wayward development as a concern and advises the Parkers to seek psychiatric help for the girl in order to ‘avert trouble before it starts’. He further implies that he approaches the Parkers on behalf of both himself and his wife when, as a later scene shows, Mrs Hulme sees the girls’ intimacy as ‘all perfectly innocent’. Following Mr Hulme’s recommendation, Pauline’s mother takes her to a consultation with the blatantly inept child psychologist and family friend, Dr Bennett.

[27] During the consultation, the first question Dr Bennett addresses to Pauline, once he has asked Mrs Parker to vacate the room, is ‘Do you like your mother?’. This approach, which connects female homosexuality to mother-daughter interactions, curiously draws attention to the emphasis Heavenly Creatures itself places on this relationship. However, whereas Dr Bennett seeks to connect the mother-daughter relation to incipient sexual perversion, the film focuses on the ongoing conflicts which arise from a rupture in the mother-daughter relationship. The psychiatrist’s diagnosis of ‘H-homosexuality’ as a seemingly contagious disease reinforces Mrs Parker’s concern for Pauline’s physical decline (rather than her sexual preference). In order to restore her daughter to health, Mrs Parker threatens to separate the girls and it is this, taken in conjunction with the collapse of the Hulmes’ marriage, which precipitates the final chain of events leading to murder. Mistakenly confiding in Mr Hulme, the girls unwittingly confirm his decision to leave New Zealand for London and, in so doing, free his wife to pursue her affair. Under this new dispensation, Juliet is destined for yet another separation and a sojourn in South Africa, again ostensibly for health reasons. Forbidden to accompany Juliet, Pauline begins to ponder ‘the means of ridding [her]self of the obstacle’ which stands between herself and Juliet — in the shape of the mother who refuses to allow her to travel overseas.

[28] In the only scene in the film which brings both mothers face to face, Mrs Hulme visits Pauline’s family to request that the girls be able to spend their last remaining weeks together. Thus seeking to compensate for the damage she has inflicted — and continues to inflict — upon Juliet, Mrs Hulme is told by her distressed counterpart of the disintegration of the mother-daughter relationship within the Parker family: ‘Yvonne hasn’t spoken to me for nearly two weeks.’ Mr Parker’s protective stance toward his wife is equally emphasised in this scene, as he intercedes to tell Mrs Hulme: ‘She’s cut us out of her life, Mrs Hulme.’ Despite her tactful demeanour, Mrs Hulme is perplexed by the emotions displayed by the Parkers and proves unable to negotiate Mrs Parker’s final dissolution into tears of grief. As she politely retreats, the differences between the two mothers are, once again, emphasised by the film. The contrast between them is made to speak for itself.

[29] The reunion between Juliet and Pauline following Mrs Hulme’s intervention sees the girls’ complete absorption in each other and the fantasy world they have long been fashioning. Their closeness, in turn, brings into focus the vague notions of murder first proposed by Pauline. In a single shot which resonates with an earlier one of the girls at Port Levy, Juliet and Pauline hold hands as the voice-over announces their ‘definite plan’ to ‘moider mother’. Of the remaining fifteen minutes of the film, nine are devoted to the execution of this plan with the last four depicting the long walk taken by the girls as they escort Mrs Parker to the place of her death. When Juliet’s decision to collude with the murder is rendered in the balcony scene, the aria she sings is intercut with the second shipboard sequence so that the fantasy the girls wish to fulfil through the murder is brought to the fore. As if to emphasise the reconciliation the murder will effect, Juliet kisses her own hesitant and somewhat wary mother, before leaving the house to carry out the crime.

[30] The final sequence of Heavenly Creatures sees Pauline and Juliet put their murder plans into action. It combines an unbearable tension with poignant details relating to the murder victim. Seen completing her chores on the day of the murder, Mrs Parker welcomes Juliet into the kitchen, unaware of the brick she conceals in her bag. Bending over the oven, in a scene reminiscent of the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ fairy tale, she is oblivious to the girls who hover behind her, poised between action and inaction. Donning her best clothes (those she also wore for the appointment with Dr Bennett), Mrs Parker effectively dresses up for her own death. Along with these details relating to the victim, Heavenly Creatures shows the very different responses of Juliet and Pauline to the imminent murder. The agitated Juliet is seen constantly wringing her hands as she contemplates the crime and seeks to have Pauline confirm the rather perverse logic with which she justifies their forthcoming action. She tells her friend, ‘Your mother is rather a miserable woman’, before announcing her belief that Mrs Parker knows what is afoot: ‘I think she knows what’s going to happen’, adding, approvingly, ‘She doesn’t seem to bear us any grudge.’ Articulating her increasingly distorted perceptions, Juliet ignores Pauline’s more stoical pose and the two embark upon a conversation in which neither responds directly to the other since each is absorbed in her own chain of thought. Refusing to engage with Juliet’s comments, Pauline instead describes, for her friend’s apparent benefit, the opera she is writing: ‘It’s a three-act story with a tragedy in it.’  Significantly, the differences between the girls at this point, conveyed through body language, the physical distance between them and their separate conversations, are dissolved when Pauline, who otherwise busies herself by preparing the murder weapon, debates the conclusion to her opera and the relative merits of marriage over adultery. Confirming Pauline’s chosen denouement, Juliet finally responds to her friend’s monologue with ‘affairs are much more exciting than marriages, as Mummy can testify.’ Choosing thus to engage with Pauline’s inventiveness by drawing upon her home-life and mother’s example, Juliet shows, at this vital juncture, the impact her mother’s infidelity has had. As she moves to sit beside Pauline on the bed, however, she positions herself so that she does not need to witness the preparations for the coming murder. This scene, which highlights Juliet’s preoccupations with both mothers, contrasts her nervous chatter with Pauline’s control and focus. The differences between the girls suggest Juliet’s struggle with the compulsion which drives her and Pauline’s acceptance of it.

[31] Jackson’s slow build-up to the scene of the murder includes two moments of deferral. Upon arriving at Victoria Park, where they plan to spend the afternoon, Mrs Parker rejects an initial offer of a walk and opts instead for afternoon tea. In the tea-room, she eyes the last scone while her daughter scrutinises her in turn. When she urges her mother to consume this last treat and is supported by Juliet, it seems as if a reconciliation between the girls and Mrs Parker has been achieved. The tender concern which surfaces between mother and daughter, as when Pauline offers her hand to help her mother across the muddy terrain, also extends to include Juliet, whom Mrs Parker instructs to button her coat against the cold. In the final moments of the film, the camera slows the movements of the walkers, picking up details as the three figures march down the path which leads to matricide.

[32] The final ruse deployed by the girls in order to mount their surprise attack is to drop a pink gemstone on the path and strike when Mrs Parker bends to retrieve it. This gem has already featured in one of the film’s fantasy sequences where it is used as a symbol of Pauline’s virginity. In the earlier sequence, it is carefully placed by Diello in order to trap John, the boarder who has seduced Pauline. Murdered by the waiting Diello as he admires the gem, John (or Nicholas, as he features in the fantasy) is, at the close of the film, doubled with Mrs Parker. However, while she has indeed sought to curtail her daughter’s heterosexual experiments, Mrs Parker does not actively intervene to prevent Pauline’s homoerotic bond with Juliet, at least until the point when she fears for Pauline’s physical rather than moral well-being. Such a symbolic alliance between John and Mrs Parker seems curious but also appropriate, given the logic of displacement which, the film suggests, underscores the murder. For as Heavenly Creatures shows, Mrs Parker’s disapproval of her daughter’s heterosexual amours is fuelled by her desire to protect the girl and bears no resemblance to Mr Hulme’s attempts to construct them as pathological.

[33] The murder of Mrs Parker is rendered in a prolonged sequence in which she is subjected to countless blows. Her death is slow, punctuated by attempts to defend herself and accompanied by terrified cries and groans. This suggests that despite Jackson’s empathy with the girls, he is equally aware of the brutality in which they are implicated. However, as these last violent scenes are played out, they are intercut with the third shipboard sequence in which Pauline is left behind as Juliet screams, ‘I’m sorry’ at her. Recalling the fantasy the girls share and its simultaneous destruction, the sequence in question ironically encapsulates the way in which the act which will supposedly ensure union only ends in separation. This point is driven home by the film’s epilogue, which, as well as detailing the sentences handed out to the guilty, emphasises the unusual condition of their parole, ‘that they should never meet again’.

[34] While Heavenly Creatures certainly succeeds in rendering the creativity, passion and intensity of the relationship between Pauline and Juliet, its representation of the mother-daughter relationship remains problematic. In repeatedly contrasting the mothering the girls receive, the film suggests that the matricidal impulse can be traced back to Mrs Hulme and her inadequate treatment of her daughter. Without disputing the psychological damage to which Juliet may have been subjected, it is also worth noting the extent to which the portrayals of Mrs Parker and Mrs Hulme also suggest the film’s ideological investment in the mother-figure. As an apparently liberal and progressive woman, Mrs Hulme appears to place her own sexual interests above the well-being of her daughter and her duty to her husband. Lacking Mrs Hulme’s sophistication, privileged position and education, Mrs Parker is, on the other hand, presented as a woman whose life revolves around husband, children and home. Through its doubling of two mothers, Heavenly Creatures suggests that inadequate mothering on the part of Mrs Hulme produces a violence which is misdirected at a woman who assumes a more conventional maternal role. Such a displacement is dramatised on the screen in ways which imply a judgement on the woman who escapes the consequences of her neglect of Juliet and whose place, within the psychic economy as a victim of a matricidal rage, is taken by Mrs Parker.

[35] While Heavenly Creatures seeks to bring into focus the matricidal trajectory culminating in the murder of Honora Parker, the narrative it provides and the problematic it inscribes can be illuminated by the perspective offered by Juliet Hulme herself. In the years following her release from prison, she has gone on to achieve success as a writer of detective fiction. Living and working pseudonymously, the identity and past crime of ‘Anne Perry’ remained hidden until the appearance of Heavenly Creatures led to her public exposure by a journalist. Living in a Scottish village close by her mother, Perry addressed the question of the maternal absences which characterised her own mother-daughter relationship and the way in which these were used at the trial in order to judge her mother:

The effect on me was disorientating, but my mother sent me away with great anguish. She’s already heard one doctor say, when I was six, that he would come back to sign my death certificate in the morning. One of the things that hurt me most was the way they painted her at the time of the trial (Perry, 18-21).

These comments, which draw attention to the implicit criticisms levelled against Mrs Hulme in her role as mother, are equally relevant to the film. Whether one chooses to argue that Perry still clings to the ideal mother-figure — thirty five years after the murder of Mrs Parker — and denies the impact of past abandonments is, as Jackson would appreciate, open to question.

Works Cited

  • Corliss, Richard. ‘A Heavenly Trip Toward Hell: Teen Obsession Animates a Thrilling Film from New Zealand’,Time International, 12 May 1994, 64.
  • Freud, Sigmund.’Family Romances’ (1909), in On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works, The Pelican Freud Library, ed. and trans. James Strachey, 15 vols. Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1973-86, VII (1977), 217-225.
  • Glamuzina, Julie and Alison J. Laurie. Parker & Hulme: A Lesbian View. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books, 1995.
  • Hart, Lynda. Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression. London: Routledge, 1994.
  • Perry, Anne. ‘Haunted by My Horrible Past’, An Interview with Sarah Gristwood in The Australian Women’s Weekly, March 1995, 18-21.
  • Romney, Jonathan. ‘Heavenly Creatures‘, New Statesman and Society, 2 October 1995, 39.