Thursday, August 20, 2015

Stephanie Johnson on Peter Jackson

The 82nd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the October 1994 issue: Stephanie Johnson’s review of Peter Jackson’s movie Heavenly Creatures.

Michelanne Forster’s play Daughters Of Heaven brought back into the limelight a murder case that thrilled and horrified 1950s Christchurch. In 1954 Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker murdered Honoria Parker, Pauline’s mother, with a brick in a stocking. There are many people including no doubt, Juliet and Pauline, who wish that Forster had let sleeping dogs lie. Now the dogs are well and truly barking with Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures: on tabloid TV we have been treated to scenes of intrepid reporters hanging around Hulme’s English country estate, where she makes a living by writing thrillers.

Peter Jackson is not the only one who wanted the Parker-Hulme story. Two other projects were in the offing when Jackson’s team got the funding to go ahead. Speculation abounded on how Jackson — famous for, among others, the award-winning splatter-and-gore Braindead — would handle this sensitive material. Would there be great gobbets of blood? Would there be wild pubescent lesbian sex? Would John Cranna again consign Jackson and anybody foolish enough to admire his work on a trip to Cultural Albania?

Heavenly Creatures, I am pleased to report, is a stylish, tender and technically magnificent work. Together with co-writer Frances Walsh, Jackson captures the values and idiomatic speech of mid-century New Zealand. Juliet and Pauline are naive, imaginative girls, much younger in many ways than l5-year-olds are now. They are two oddballs, outsiders hungry for fame and adventure, who team up against the world. As their friendship deepens, so does their conviction that they are more intelligent and exciting than everybody around them.

Sarah Peirse as the ill-fated Mum, and Melanie Lynskey as her daughter, are brilliant pieces of casting. Lynskey looks very much like a younger Peirse, though perhaps not as beautiful. Peirse shows us a bewildered and loving parent, a woman who drudges through long days as a boarding-house proprietor, wanting more than what she’s had for her clever daughter. Lynskey’s expressive face scowls and pouts in teenage rebellion at home, but brightens and opens when she’s visiting the Hulmes.

The house the real Hulmes lived in is now the Staff Club at the University of Canterbury. In my student days legend had it that the house was haunted by the ghost of the murder victim. It is large, gracious, and surrounded by beautifully kept grounds. Jackson makes use of its splendour. The house emphasises the enormous difference between the drab lifestyle of Pauline’s family (poor but loving, mackerel is a treat) and that of the Hulmes (tennis parties, a dashing lover for sexy but selfish Mrs Hulme, holidays by the sea).

It is in his rendering of the world within the real world that Jackson achieves a kind of genius. “Boronia” is the setting of the girls’ fantasy life, a medieval walled town, peopled with Princesses, Kings and Knights. As well as writing a novel together about the place, Pauline and Juliet model its inhabitants in clay. Jackson makes these figures life-size, has them sing, dance, mate, slice one another in half. The special effects display his long experience in that area — they are extraordinary. On more than one occasion in the film all we lay-persons can do is wonder, “How did he do that?”

The film ends with the murder, high in the Port Hills on a sparkling Christchurch winter day. The scene is executed with admirable restraint, using what appears to be less than a litre of fake blood.

For a moment, as the credits began to roll, I wished the film had been longer. I would liked to have seen the court scenes and how hoity-toity Juliet coped in a New Zealand prison, but I suppose by then the relationship between the girls had been ripped asunder and their relationship is what Heavenly Creatures is all about. So much these days depends upon the idea of perpetrators of heinous crimes as victims, with endless psycho-drivel: Jackson stops short of any such lapse in taste.

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