Six Damn Fine Degrees #81: Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Caveat: here be spoilers.

Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures begins, after a 1950s type commercial for Christchurch, New Zealand, with two young women, girls really, running through shrubbery screaming hysterically. Covered in blood, they are found by a tea shop owner. “It’s Mummy,” says one, “she’s been terribly hurt.”

Cut to an all-girls school, girls singing a traditional, and Pauline Yvonne Rieper arriving. She is a girl who keeps to herself, surly even. Puffing her cheeks and glowering through her classes as if they exist only to aggravate her. Until, that is, Juliet Hulme joins her class. Unlike Pauline, she is upper-class, English and has no compunction talking back to teachers in a faux-polite superior way. Pauline is immediately smitten. They first bond over their childhood illnesses. Pauline had suffered through a bone infection, necessitating drawn-out and painful procedures that left her with scars on her leg. Juliet has scars on her lungs, due to severe bouts of pneumonia. “Cheer up!” Juliet tells Pauline, “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It is all frightfully romantic.”

Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet as Pauline Rieper and Juliet Hulme

A willful and creative spirit, Juliet soon has Pauline join in her writings and her fantasy world. The Christian religion, she states, is a load of bunkum. So they invent their own. The saints are stars of stage and screen. Like Mario Lanza. Or James Mason. Orson Welles elicits delighted squeals of disgust. They write stories, with the requisite soap-opera type plots of royal marriages, romance and dissolute progeny. They write incessantly, create little plasticine models of their characters and start play-acting their characters out to each other. Their fantasy world starts serving as a shield against the banal realities of their lives, when Juliet’s parents decide to go on a conference together and leave her alone. Alone again, as it turns out, since they seem to shuttle the sensitive and clingy Juliet off to places all over the world on her own “for her health”. When Pauline finds the shattered Juliet crying, after receiving the news, they find, as Pauline puts it, the key to the fourth world – their idea of heaven – and Jackson realizes this vision on screen via fantasy sequences that vary from kitschy giant butterflies, to plasticine figurines come to life. This fourth world contains the kingdom of Borovnia, the stage of most of the girls’ subsequent fantasies, which become ever darker.

Pauline, in contrast to Juliet’s prosperous background, comes from a rather simple working-class family. She has caring parents, generally, who take in boarders to make a little extra money. They understand very little about the inner life of their surly but imaginative daughter, and Pauline starts to idolise Juliet’s parents who are an entry into a world of affluence and intellect that she has never before experienced. When Juliet suffers a bout of tuberculosis and is sent to a sanitarium to recuperate in isolation, the friends write to one another frequently. During this time, Juliet’s parents are abroad yet again and when they return they find the friends’ relationship has deepened even further.

As their bond grows ever more intense, we might call it co-dependent now, it starts to worry the adults who surround them. Not because both girls show clear signs of mental distress, but because their relationship might be sexual. While this is entirely beside the point, their love borders on an obsession which would be concerning whether it is sexual or not, but it is ultimately decided it is for that reason the friends should be separated. This sends Pauline into a serious depression and serves to alienate her from her own parents even more. The two friends cook up a hare-brained scheme to run away together when reality again rears its ugly head, in the form of the pending divorce of Juliet’s parents and its consequences: she is to go to South Africa, to remain with an aunt. In an attempt to put a stop to the inevitable, Pauline decides there is one main obstacle to her joining Juliet abroad forever. Her mom, Honorah. And therefore, she writes very simply in her diary: “…the happy event is to take place tomorrow afternoon. So next time I write in this diary Mother will be dead. How odd — yet how pleasing.” This takes us full circle, back to the beginning of the movie and the aftermath of the killing. Jackson doesn’t shy away from the violence of the act, as he might have done: the horror of it sends both girls screaming for help, and to their eventual arrest and conviction.

What the film does so well is taking us directly into Pauline’s fantasy world. She is stuck in a life she considers banal, with no way out until she latches on to the free-spirited Juliet. Her rage at being an outsider, at not being understood, at not being seen, is what drives her, the film seems to say, to lash out at the obstruction nearest to her. What the girls share in the film is certainly love, a love which is erroneously pathologized, and certainly illegal in 1954 New Zealand. But there is a sense that the violent murder of Honorah is an inevitability, not necessarily due to the girls’ relationship, but because Pauline, in particular, is never understood as herself. Her identity is treated in a similar way as her bone disease was. As something excruciating that ought to be fixed, painfully, over time.

Jackson shows Pauline’s emotions and visions uncritically. But he is savvy enough to show she isn’t always right. Juliet’s father rather dislikes ‘The Rieper child’, in his words, for all her doting on him. And Honorah’s actions stem from a deep love as well as ignorance. When she seeks help, the doctor she consults gives her unforgivably bad advice, and so she has no way of understanding what is going on with her surly child and no way of understanding how she herself has become so reviled. The adults in the film make the mistake of being rather self-absorbed and enmeshed in their own little drama, or just being ignorant. Most significantly, though, their sin is not seeing their children properly, as themselves. The film is profound in acknowledging the hurt this brings, and in not underestimating the anger that accompanies it. The pain of being othered can leave a mark for life.

While Heavenly Creatures is a beautiful, and remarkably honest, film, there ís a real Pauline, a real Julia and therefore a real Honorah. She met Herbert Rieper in 1927 at the firm where she was working, and while they did decide to live together, he never divorced the woman he married during the First World War. So while during her life, she and Pauline were referred to as “Rieper”, as if she and Hubert were legally married, during the trial Pauline was known as “Parker”. Honorah’s first baby died in 1936 during infancy, and Rosemary, her last born in 1949, was institutionalised at 2 years old with Down syndrome, though the family did visit often and took her home occasionally. Having already lost one child, she must have suffered great anxiety during Pauline’s protracted illness in 1943, aged only 5. And she will have been over the moon when she recovered. While she was invested in separating the teenage friends, it was ultimately Henry Hulme, not Honorah, who decided to take custody of Jonathan and leave Juliet in South Africa with relatives. Honorah died on June 22 1954, aged only 45.

After Pauline confessed and was charged, the police searched her room with Herbert Rieper’s permission. There they found 14 exercise books, a scrapbook and two diaries. Although Pauline had stated she alone was responsible, and Juliet had nothing to do with it, the diaries soon put Juliet under suspicion, and under interrogation she confessed and was charged as well.

The official word is that Pauline’s diaries do not exist anymore, and haven’t for a long time. The Heavenly Creatures quotes are based on the snippets of Pauline’s diaries which made it into the trial.

Pauline and Juliet were convicted by an all-male jury and sent to prison. Dr Henry Hulme visited his daughter once, before the trial, and then left New Zealand with her little brother. After the conviction Pauline’s father reluctantly visited her only once at Arohata Women’s Reformatory, finding it depressing. Juliet spent her first three months at Mount Eden maximum security prison in solitary confinement. No one visited her during her incarceration.

After the buzz surrounding the film, it came out that Pauline and Juliet were both living out their lives in seclusion under different names. Pauline, now Hilary Nathan, runs a children’s riding school and has no interest in talking to the press, though her sister Wendy has talked about her deep catholic faith, her attempt at becoming a nun, and her profound remorse: “She said it was something that grew and grew, out of all proportion.”

Juliet was discovered to be successful novelist Anne Perry, now a member of the Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who would finally speak about her part in the crime in the 2009 documentary Anne Perry: Interiors.

“I was going to go with my father to South Africa, to where his sister lived… And when Pauline heard about this, which must have been about the day afterwards, that was when the world seemed to fall apart for her. Now, I was frightened of her, in the fact that I thought she really would take her life. That she was what I now know is bulimic. She used to throw up after every meal, I mean you could smell it on her. … and you know I thought she really would. And it would be my fault. Now that is stupid, but I felt absolutely trapped. And it was almost as if I was doing something, and I knew it was wrong, and I knew I would have to pay for it, and I knew it was stupid. But I was terrified that she really would take her life and it would be my fault. I felt that I couldn’t walk away. I would have given anything I had to be able to somehow get out of it, but I didn’t see a way. And I couldn’t go to my mother, and I couldn’t go to my father. … And I did something stupid which I have regretted for the rest of my life. But I can’t undo it.”

It took both of them a long time to come to terms with what they had done.

Credit: Getty Images

– This post owes a great deal of thanks to the True Crime New Zealand podcast, and So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme & the Murder That Shocked the World (2011), by Peter Graham

– What remains of Pauline’s diaries can be found here.

– The documentary Anne Perry: Interiors (2009) can be found here.

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