Heavenly Creatures: a rich and dark dramatisation of a real-life matricide

Peter Jackson, “Heavenly Creatures” (1994)

Having made his reputation as purveyor of gory splatter horror comedy flicks to amuse teenagers and kidults, New Zealand director Peter Jackson made his jump to the mainstream film world with the drama “Heavenly Creatures”. The film is based on a notorious and sensational New Zealand murder trial that took place in 1954, in which two young teenage girls were charged with the murder of the mother of one of the girls themselves, and were sentenced to 5-year jail terms in prison, after which they were to change their names and never see each other again. Rather than focus on the actual trial itself, in which various psychiatric experts were brought in to ascertain if the girls were lesbian or insane, “Heavenly Creatures” details the friendship of the girls, how it developed and the intense fantasy world they wove together as their way of coping with social restrictions and pressures in the provincial conservative society of 1950s Christchurch in southern New Zealand.

Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey) is a surly outcast at her girls-only high school until new student Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) arrives from the UK. Both girls discover they have much in common: they suffered from serious illnesses as children and spent time in hospital; they are highly intelligent and imaginative and share the same interests in music, watching movies, reading books and making up their own stories. As the friendship grows, Juliet invites Pauline to her home and Pauline is amazed to discover that Juliet’s family is wealthy and cultured in contrast to her own working class folks. Together the girls create a fantasy kingdom called Borovnia, populated with clay figures the girls make; the youngsters also dress up and act out the adventures of the Borovnian royals which they then chronicle in novels they eventually plan to publish in the US. Perhaps a film director will even make movies out of the books! Meanwhile Pauline’s mother Honora (Sarah Peirse) and Juliet’s father (Clive Merrison) start to worry over the girls’ intense friendship; Pauline’s mum drags her offspring to see a psychiatrist who can hardly bring himself to mention the dreaded “L” word. Eventually the parents meet and agree that the girls should be separated. Juliet’s mother (Diana Kent), having an affair with another man and sympathetic to Juliet and Pauline, suggests the girls can spend a fortnight together before Juliet is dispatched to a relative in South Africa indefinitely. During this time the girls plan to run away and plot to kill Pauline’s mother whom they believe is the instigator of their separation.

As the two girls, Lynskey and Winslet are excellent: initially Winslet looks too old (she was 18 or 19 years old at the time) to play a girl in her mid-teens but she quickly sweeps away any misgivings about her suitability as Hulme. Her acting seems florid for modern audiences unused to the way upper class English teenagers might have behaved in the 1950’s but in moments requiring real emotion, Winslet is realistic enough. As Rieper, Lynskey nails the girl’s complex nature as she goes from resentment at her lower class background to exhilaration in Juliet’s company to a kind of puzzled alienation at losing her virginity. The emotion in Lynskey’s face, depending on changes in her character’s circumstances as she interacts with Peirse and other actors, is one of the most memorable aspects of the movie; the girl’s not a beauty but her face, often framed in close-up, is a real study of changes in feeling and mood. There is an electrifying chemistry to Lynskey and Winslet’s interactions that apparently continued beyond the film itself; in a weird case of life imitating art, the two continued to call each other Pauline and Juliet after filming ended! The acting support is top-notch as well, bringing out a strong impression of the social gulf that exists between the Riepers and Hulmes and which leads Pauline to despise her background, particularly her mother who’s the disciplinarian in the family in contrast to Juliet’s easy-going and rebellious mother.

The film’s approach is strictly narrative and realist: told from Pauline’s point of view, using the girl’s actual diary extracts as the source for Lynskey’s voice-over monologues, “Heavenly Creatures” presents the events leading up to the murder without taking either the girls’ side or their parents’ side. The social and economic context in which the girls meet and create their imaginary world, itself both a witty and cheeky commentary on the culture they’ve grown up with and a place to express their rebellious tendencies and frustration at social expectations of them, emerges as the elephant in the room that informs the girls’ fantasies and breeds the resentment Pauline feels for her family and mother. The fantasy world of clay figures, mediaeval castles, Italian operatic arias and English gardens, sometimes laid over the real New Zealand landscape of green fern forests in which the original Maori culture has perhaps been extinguished, is presented as appearing more real than real life itself and often intrudes with bloodthirsty relish in Pauline and Juliet’s day-dreams. Jackson’s attention to replicating details of New Zealand life in the 1950s looks accurate and captures the flavour of both the warm if claustrophobic working class life of Pauline’s family and the languid, free-wheeling life of Juliet’s family. Fantasy sequences featuring adult-sized clay figures and recreations of scenes with US actor Orson Welles from Carol Reed’s famous 1950s film “The Third Man” are often droll, wickedly funny and slightly sinister at the same time.

The cinematography which takes in panoramic and bird’s-eye views of the wide plains of Canterbury province in southern New Zealand is often very beautiful; the plains and the lush green forests could be symbolic of the girls’ desire for freedom and self-expression. By contrast, old newsreel scenes of mid-20th century Christchurch before the movie’s opening credits show a city that could have existed anywhere in Australia or New Zealand of the same period, apart perhaps from a shot of the Anglican church that was damaged in February 2011 by an earthquake.

It’s a pity that the film doesn’t go beyond the murder and show the voyeuristic and prurient aspects of the trial which would have demonstrated the sexually repressed and hypocritical side of 1950s Christchurch society in dismissing the girls as “evil” while salivating over the trial’s details through the newspapers of the time. Hints that the girls may have lesbian tendencies are explored tastefully: Pauline finds her first sexual experience with a man an alienating non-event and the scene in which the girls embrace and kiss in their underwear in bed could be construed as acting out parts for their novel – after all, someone has to play the prince! – as well as suggesting a sexual aspect to the friendship. Juliet plays a dominating role and Pauline is her adoring acolyte in the relationship. The film doesn’t dwell much on the family dynamics that encourage the girls to retreat deeper into their shared fantasy: there is no hint of the conflict in the Hulmes’ marriage (though there must have been as the mother has a lover and the parents are as alike as the proverbial chalk and cheese) or in the Riepers’ relationship even though hte movie clearly shows Honora as a dominant character and her husband as a bit child-like.

Although “Heavenly Creatures” on the surface is a straightforward fictional retelling of a real-life drama with no apparent agenda, its themes of sensitive, intelligent individuals who try in their own way to cope with the restrictions their society places on them and the frustrations these cause, of how the fantasy worlds people create reflect their culture and help them cope (or not cope) with their reality as it changes, and the psychology of teenage girls together give the film a richness that informs the acting and fleshes out the drama with dark Gothic imagery. There is a gentle suspense that with the moderately fast pace builds quietly and inexorably to the horrific climax.

The Fringe Dwellers: gentle comedy with limited message about a family struggling with racial prejudice and discrimination

Bruce Beresford, “The Fringe Dwellers” (1986)

Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Nene Gare, this gentle and minimally made movie is a compassionate look at the plight of an Australian Aboriginal family struggling with poverty, racial prejudice and culture shock and the effect these have on a young teenage girl in the family. When we first meet them, the Comeaways are living in a shack in a shanty-town on the edge of a town in rural Australia: they don’t have electricity or hot water on tap of course but what they lack in material things, they make up for in close family support and ties. One of the teenage girls, Trilby (Kristina Nehm), dreams of the family moving to a better house and neighbourhood where blacks and whites live in harmony and trust, and of completing her education and being able to get a job and work on equal terms with white people in the city. When Dad (Bob Maza) gets a steady job, Mum (Justine Saunders) moves the family to a Housing Commission home, and Trilby and her younger brother (Dennis Walker) get to go to school regularly, it really looks as if the Comeaways will pave the way for other families in the shanty-town to shift out of poverty into a brighter future. Uh-oh, things don’t turn out the way Trilby had hoped: the extended family arrives at the Comeaways’ new home and various relatives park themselves permanently on the furniture or the verandah and glue themselves to the TV set and in Mum’s make-up kit; the food and electricity bills shoot up without a corresponding increase in the family’s income; and Trilby’s parents have problems paying the rates on time. Unable to cope with the noise and the family’s financial problems on top of schoolwork, Trilby turns to a young bronco-rider (Ernie Dingo) for comfort and companionship but ends up falling pregnant to him. Eventually Dad deserts the family and everyone is forced to move back to the shanty-town shack.

Much of what happens to the Comeaways is played as gentle comedy which portrays starkly some of the problems and issues the family has to deal with. The members are able to bat and swat outright racial bullying in the streets and at school but racial discrimination doesn’t end there: when Mum and Dad have problems making ends meet, the town offers no help or guidance to them. Social isolation would appear to be a problem for Mum but apart from the appearance of a friendly neighbour who invites her to her place for afternoon tea the film skirts over this issue. The parents struggle with low self-esteem and trying to fit in with their white neighbours’ ways in spite of their poverty; at the same time, they’re obliged by their cultural background to share their house and possessions with their relatives who take advantage of them. The neighbours’ reactions to the Comeaways’ presence are difficult to fathom.

The acting is well done if minimal, in keeping with the film’s pared-down style. Characters tend to be resigned to their fate and restrained emotionally with only Trilby actively rebelling against the status and place predetermined by society for her and her people. The Comeaways accept their lowly lot in life but are always hopeful that one day things might improve. However, such improvement will come at a cost: in a scene near the end, when Mum tries to console Trilby after the birth of her child, she refers to the destruction of their native culture and knowledge – the possibility of reconciling material advancement with preserving First Nation cultures, values and knowledge isn’t entertained. This is probably the saddest moment in the film, not least because it indirectly leads to Trilby having to choose between staying with her people and accepting what they accept, and following her ambitions and ideals by going to the city. The climax when Trilby makes her decision and literally cuts her ties to her family and culture in the hospital’s toilet room is shocking and heartbreaking, though curiously the film continues with Trilby going home with her family and no-one saying anything; there are not even any subtitles to suggest that she might have stayed a bit longer in hospital for some psychiatric treatment.

Nehm is outstanding as Trilby who wants better for herself and for her family but comes under terrific pressure from both her own culture and the expectations of Western society; her performance in the women’s toilets scene is quiet and powerful, the character raising her arms as if in question or supplication and her appearance becomes almost Christ-like and sacrificial. (She sacrifices more than just a baby.) Saunders and Maza as Trilby’s parents provide comedy and drama in turns, and each is credible in both: Maza’s character is torn between the demands of his breadwinning role and his natural inclination to take things easy and have a good time, and Saunders’s Mum does the best she can keeping the family together with the limited knowledge and resources she has with a sunny though fatalistic outlook on life. Among their people, actions speak much louder than words: Maza’s scenes outside the Housing Commission office where he’s just about to pay his rent and where he gambles instead the money away, and the strain and guilt of his behaviour as these show on his face, are something to behold in this respect. A subplot beckons when a white teacher discovers Trilby’s young brother has artistic talent and gives him a sketchbook but doesn’t come to more than that.

The cinematography is beautiful and colourful, as might be expected in a movie where remote countryside is everywhere: the ambience of the town with its small shops and pubs is evident. Something of the small-minded outlook of the white townsfolk and the racial prejudice that exists is always present.

The ending calls for a sequel which would follow Trilby’s adventures in the city and how she copes with city life, particularly the psychological aspect of it, but to my knowledge this has never been made nor is it likely to be made. Viewers can be certain though that whatever happens to Trilby when she leaves the town, she will always remain a “fringe dweller”, never really at home in any society, including the one she was born into.

Unfortunately the film’s narrow focus on the Comeaways’ struggle personalises their problems to the level of neighbours and other people they have direct contact with, and says nothing about how racial discrimination and prejudice are institutional in their society. Discrimination is reduced to a matron at a hospital or a teacher or school student being nasty to the Comeaways but that’s all. But how did Trilby work out in the first place that being a strict nuclear family living in a house would be a way of breaking down the physical and psychological race barriers? Either someone taught this to her or she’s picked it up herself and rationalised the idea as the “ideal” way of living for her people if they are to advance socially. Seems like the one person most brainwashed and prejudiced against the worth of Aboriginal culture and its values is Trilby herself. In this respect, the film can be unintentionally patronising towards the people whose interests it aims to defend: it suggests that Australian Aboriginal and other First Nations people can overcome discrimination if they adopt the ways and the thinking of Western society but never offers the idea that Western society itself could learn something from these people’s cultures.

Balibo: film that forces viewers to think and ask questions about tragic fate of six news reporters

Robert Connolly, “Balibo” (2009)

Imaginatively constructed as three stories that initially fit into one another like Russian matryoshka dolls, of which two more or less spread out and run parallel for much of the film, “Balibo” recounts the fate of five Australian TV reporters who disappeared in Balibo in East Timor in October 1975, and of their compatriot journalist Roger East who investigated the men’s deaths and was himself killed by Indonesian soldiers a few weeks after the original murders. Often billed as a political thriller, the film also dramatises several accounts and stories by East Timorese people, represented by the fictional character of Juliana da Costa, and pays tribute to them and the heroic struggle of their people for independence from Portugal and then Indonesia. The film acts on another level as a road movie in which Roger East, played by Anthony LaPaglia, becomes a close friend of young revolutionary Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaacs), the founder of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor aka Fretelin, who invited East to come to East Timor to see and report on the events there.

LaPaglia carries much of “Balibo” as the veteran journalist who could have had a cushy public relations job back in Australia but chose instead to go rough in abandoned villages and tropical countryside to find the five reporters after Ramos-Horta shows him their photographs and tells him they are missing. LaPaglia’s performance is understated and matter-of-fact in the manner of stony-faced, hard-nosed Australian news reporting of the 1970’s; later in the film, when he has been to Balibo, seen some horrific sights and returned to Dili, the full impact of what happened to the reporters hits him and he breaks down silently in tears. LaPaglia plays his part quietly and well, giving a good impression of a seasoned reporter who refuses to take no for an answer, pushes himself to walk through thick forest and grassland under army fire and banters with Ramos-Horta on their trek.

As Ramos-Horta, Isaacs doesn’t have a lot to do beyond looking good, being a fired-up revolutionary and bickering with East as they walk to Balibo. He disappears from the film after they reach the town and his character doesn’t appear again until the very end. The actors who play the five TV reporters in the film’s recreation of their journey to Balibo to document the Indonesian invasion are portrayed as chummy (though their employers are rival TV stations – in those days, Australian free-to-air TV channels were more co-operative and less competitive), drinking and laughing together, doing the best job they can filming and reporting on what they see under difficult and stressful conditions, and collecting stories from the local people. Their death scene is painful and shocking in its casual and brutal nature; the men’s fear and near-hysteria as the killers pursue them are very real but not overly dramatic, particularly in a scene in which one man, hiding behind a door, panics and considers his options wordlessly before bravely opening the door to face his killers.

All other significant roles in “Balibo” are played by East Timorese amateurs. The role of Juliana is well played by a young girl who as the eight-year-old Juliana makes friends with East and later sees him being killed, and by an older woman in her 30’s who tells of her life under Indonesian occupation to an Australian man at the time of East Timor’s independence in 1999. Viewers will warm to the young girl who is very charming in the small amount of screen-time she gets.

Filmed on a small budget, the movie relies partly on handheld camera work which means a lot of it looks jumpy to viewers. The story of the five Australian reporters appears in bleached-out, over-bright colours: the film-makers use lenses typical of what was used in Australian news reporting in 1975 to film that part of the plot. Unfortunately, many historical details are glossed over and the despicable role of the Australian and American governments in tacitly approving the invasion – it’s known that US president Gerald Ford and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger passed through Indonesia a few days before the invasion took place, and that then Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam believed East Timor should be “integrated” into Indonesia – is reduced to Ramos-Horta’s scatological comment on a photo of Whitlam and Indonesian president Suharto in a newspaper. What happens to Ramos-Horta after he and East arrive in Balibo isn’t made clear though viewers who don’t know much about East Timor’s current politics will be relieved to find he survived the Indonesian occupation in exile and became president of East Timor in 2007. As president, Ramos-Horta has so far been lukewarm on the idea of prosecuting members of the Indonesian military for war crimes against East Timor that left over 180,000 of his people dead.

Apart from its limitations, “Balibo” is an excellent movie that is worth watching. It doesn’t provide much historical background to the tragic events but as drama it’s intended to get audiences thinking about the fate of the Balibo Five and East, and to demand answers from the Australian, American and Indonesian governments about why the six men were killed and their deaths covered up for so long.

Mary and Max: claymation film labouring under plot aimed at both adults and children but failing both

Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” (2008)

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Source: www.artabase.net

This is a poignant film about how friendships can be made between social misfits and how they thrive and survive under the most trying and difficult of circumstances. The use of claymation, in both black-and-white and sepia, allows Elliot to tackle issues of mental illness, loneliness and being an outsider through the 20-year penpal relationship of the titular characters, Mary Daisy Dinkle and Max Jerry Horowitz, in a way that treats such problems and their consequences with some distance and respect while not over-dramatising them to the extent that they become trivialised. The warmth that develops through the friendship and the humour, much of which is obsessed with and uses poo as plot devices, act as an antidote to what could have been a very depressive and dark film.

The friendship begins in a non-descript suburb in Melbourne, Australia, when 8 year old Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore), lonely and neglected by both her parents and the kids at school, and having been told by a relative that babies in Australia are born from the bottoms of glasses of beer, wants to know how babies in America are made. She contrives to snatch part of a page from the New York City telephone directory at the local Australia Post office when her sozzled mother Vera, caught shoplifting stationery, quickly whisks her out and away from the enraged postmaster. Amazing that Mary could find the New York City phone directory in a small Australia Post office outlet in Melbourne in 1976; maybe there was a small colony of Manhattanites settled near that outlet at the time. Choosing a name and its corresponding address at random, Mary writes and posts a letter to Horowitz (voice: Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a lonely Jewish-American man incapacitated by numerous past traumas and his inability to relate to others. Discovering a shared love of chocolates and outsider status, over time the two readily bond and offer support – Max advises Mary on how to deal with bullies at school – though each letter from Mary brings negatives as well as joys for Max as he is forced to relive past childhood terrors and memories of failed jobs while reading each new missive; one letter puts him into such distress that he ends up in hospital for 8 months. During this early part of the film, while Mary is an innocent child, the narrative is at its most charming and amusing, and the sentiment and whimsy are not too apparent.

As Mary grows up and, buoyed by Max’s support and advice, becomes a confident woman (now voiced by Toni Collette), the source of Max’s problems is revealed – he has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism – and the film becomes sombre as the main characters start to move further apart and the narrative wades into the dark territory of depression and suicide. Minor characters die in ways that angle for cheap laughs – Vera, drinking herself into a haze after her husband’s death, mistakes embalming fluid for liquor – and the plot twist that comes when Max angrily rejects Mary for researching and publishing a book on Asperger’s syndrome for her postgraduate degree, using him as a research subject, whacks issues of depression, rejection and near-suicide onto viewers so quickly compared to the gentle pace of the film’s early half that everything seems very forced as though we have to be taught a hard lesson on life’s sorrows. The film’s flaws become more irritating – Barry Humphries as a didactic narrator using a mock-storybook style is especially annoying and drags the action down – and the sentimentality, especially when Mary becomes pregnant and has her baby, becomes cloying.

The animation is not bad with little evidence of CGI effects (it looks crude but the raw quality accentuates the film’s quirky charm) and this leads me to think that if Elliot had handed over the script-writing and the basic story-line to someone else and had concentrated on the technical aspects of the movie, it would have been so much more improved with a bulked-up and tighter plot that would dispense with the narration and which would be less repetitive in its later half. There would be a greater variety of jokes and other forms of humour to counteract the gloom, with not so much reliance on toilet jokes, and also to emphasise and contrast with Elliot’s message of how life can be cruel and you just have to deal with the cruelty with all its pointless randomness. Claymation films such as this are demanding in terms of the time and labour taken to get each little character right and each scene story-boarded and set up correctly so it’s worthwhile for animators to delegate the job of writing good scripts and screenplays that they can work with to capable writers to justify the expense and effort involved.

As it is, “Mary and Max” is an oddball film with appealing characters who are not lacking in warmth, gentleness and humour but who are forced to labour under a plot that can’t decide perhaps whether to pitch at families with preteen and teenage children as its target audience or to adults prepared to watch claymation films on their own merits – so it targets both groups. A big mistake: trying to be all things to all people is sure to result in something that fails to please everyone.