Murdering mother

After the comic splatter of Bad Taste, Meet The F eebles and Braindead, New Zealand director Peter Jackson turns his hand to a sympathetic analysis of a real life murder. He tells Nigel Floyd about the background to Heavenly Creatures.

On 22 June 1954, two New Zealand schoolgirls. sixteen-year-old Juliet Hume and fifteen-year-old Pauline Parker, together with Pauline’s mother Honora, took a bus to some tea rooms near Victoria Park in Christchurch. After tea and scones, they took a walk in the park, during the course ofwhich the two girls battered Honora to death, taking turns to hit her at least 45 times with a rock wrapped in a stocking. In an incriminating diary later produced at their trial, Pauline wrote of their plan to ‘moider Mother’, describing in detail the build-up to what she called ‘the happy event‘.

Forty years later, filmmaker Peter Jackson has exhumed this shocking murder story. Yet the intensely moving, sympathetic tone of Heavenly Creatures is far removed from both the slapstick splatter of Braindead and the contemporary tabloid headlines that screamed ‘Lesbian Schoolgirl Killers'. The key, says Jackson, is that the events are presented from Juliet and Pauline's point of view, emphasising not the shocking brutality of their crime, but their fear of separation and the complex web of make-believe that they had spun. Stifled by dull suburban conformity, they had taken flight into fantasy, conjuring up in their vibrant imaginations a medieval kingdom, Borovnia, peopled with fairytale characters, and an imaginary paradise, The Fourth World, where movie matinee idols like James Mason. Mario Lanza and John Mills romanced women, declared their undying love in song and committed nice, clean murders.

‘What I wanted was to be with the girls in their imagination, to share in their fantasies rather than just observe them. It was a long, slow march towards the moment of the murder you can’t really pinpoint a moment, or a time, when it was going to happen. Pauline started to fantasise about it in her diaries, but that's not unusual because a lot of children fantasise bout killing a parent or a teacher, an authority figure. And when she first starts to write about it. there’s really no reason for her to do it.’

[Diary entry. 29 April [954: Anger against Mother boiled up inside me as it is she who is one of the main obstacles in my path. Suddenly a means of ridding myself of this obstacle occurred to me. if she were to die. ']

‘But then Juliet learned that her family was breaking up and that she was going to be taken away

overseas. which meant that the friendship was going to" be split up. You have to take into account the fact that neither Juliet nor Pauline had ever had a close friend before, this was like the first time that they‘d ever really bonded with somebody. They had somebody that understood them more than anybody had ever done before. And how much value do you assign to that kind of friendship? Well. obviously. they put a huge value on it, the value of someone’s life.

‘lt‘s almost as if a reason arrived at that point, and the fantasy about preserving their friendship got muddled up with the fantasy about killing the mother in a fairly illogical way. So, in the movie. we were having to present something that had no logic. but in a way that made it make sense. What was important was to show where Pauline and Juliet were coming from to present the events from outside their point of view would have been a pointless exercise.‘

‘A lot of children tantasise about killing a parent or a teacher, an authority figure. And when she first starts to write about it, there’s really no reason for her to do it.’

Even so. Jackson‘s research was hampered by a reluctance in some quarters to even talk about the murder. ()n the morning after it happened. the headmistress of Christchurch Girls High School told Pauline and Juliet’s fellow pupils: ‘No girl is to discuss a certain matter‘. Little has changed since then, but Jackson hopes that Heavenly Creatures will dispel some of the lurid mythology that has grown up around the infamous case.

‘These days. the murder is regarded in Christchurch as an embarrassment as much as a tragedy. Christchurch Girls High School don‘t have any photographs of the classes that Pauline and Juliet were in. they have been excised from the school records. The year book where Juliet had a poem published is not part of their library. The school has never really recovered from the murder. yet they prefer that the tabloid myths be perpetuated. Rather

Heavenly Creatures: ‘intensely moving, sympathetic tone’

than re—examine the case. they prefer that this crap be perpetuated year after year.

‘But if young people today see the movie and their perception of the Parker-Hulme case is based on this sympathetic film. rather than the old tabloid mythology. then I think that‘s a positive thing. I don’t feel guilty about it because I think the film re- addresses a lot of very inaccurate stuff that would have become ‘fact‘ given the passing of time. And now maybe the movie will become more representative in people's minds of what happened

A more difficult problem was that both Juliet and Pauline are still alive: after serving five years in prison. they were released and started new lives under assumed identities. Pauline is thought to work fora Catholic organisation in New Zealand. but it ! was revealed just as shooting began that Juliet was now living in Scotland as Anne Perry. under which name she has made a successful living writing l historical crime novels. This presented Jackson with some difficult practical and ethical problems.

‘We never told Kate Winslett. who was playing Juliet. who the real Juliet was. She said to us endlessly. “Gosh. I wonder where she is now, I wonder what she's doing." But Fran [Walsh. the co- writer] and ljust kept our mouths shut because we knew that the minute we started to talk about it, it would become unstoppable. It's publicity that the film doesn‘t need and in a sense has nothing to do with the movie. it‘s very unfortunate. and IjUst hope that Juliet will be able to continue her life in the privacy that site has desired.

‘1 think that Pauline and Juliet‘s attitude is always going to be that they wish the film had never been made because. in their situation. no publicity is better than any publicity at all. I can’t imagine that either of them will ever see the film. I could not imagine them wanting to and I‘d be very happy if they didn't. I have no fantasy about them seeing and going, “Oh. wow, you've finally told our story. isn't that womlerful‘?" Because putting myself in their position. I don't think l could bring myselfto see it.‘ Heavenly Creatures opens at the Cameo. Edinburgh. on Fri [0 and at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Fri 24.

18 The List 10-23 Feb 1995