July 17, 2009

Heavenly readers


Another dream double bill: Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures and Stephen Daldry's The Reader. One is Kate Winslet's first film, which she starred in as a 17-year-old, crossing the world as an English import to act as English import Juliet Hulme; the other is the film that finally netted Winslet an Oscar. But that comparison -- first blush/big success -- isn't why you would put these two films together. It's this: one gives you the crime but not the consequences, ending on the moment of the murder itself, the shocking and devious teenage murder of the mother of Hulme's friend Pauline Parker; the other gives you the consequences, including a trial and a long prison sentence, but only glancingly describes the crime and never makes any attempt to depict it (if it did, we might lose the sympathy the film is trying so hard to generate for the perpetrator). Taken together you can imagine them as two parts of one story with Winslet ageing across them. Both have structurally important cycling scenes and even structurally important bath scenes, saying something about the (imaginary) continuity of character.

Tonally the films are opposites. Jackson and Fran Walsh discovered both Winslet and Melanie Lynskey and amplified their teenage newness and freshness. The girls were encouraged to be hyperactive, manic, delirious. The mood of Heavenly Creatures is almost operatic; their folie a deux and shared fantasy is literalised by Jackson who collaborates in it, gets inside it, bringing their imaginary world into this one. The Reader is a film of morose seriousness, with precisely one joke in it -- the lines about Jewish illiteracy (whereas Heavenly Creatures is a film about murder crammed with jokes). If teenage mania is the mood before the murder(s), then it fits that penitential gloom should be the mood after it. The Reader's Hanna is like Anne Perry, the renamed and re-exiled Juliet Hulme, living for all those years with her secret. So even before we see her in prison, we always see Hanna trapped -- the apartment, the railway carriage -- except for the one cycling scene. In Heavenly Creatures, cycling scenes were bursts of hyperactive freedom. Is the older Hanna/Anne/Juliet recalling all that?

In another way, the second film shows that Winslet has fallen. Jackson and Walsh make much of the class difference -- posh Juliet in her grand Ilam estate; working-class Pauline living in a boarding house on Gloucester Street; although both attend (crucially for Christchurch in those days) the same school. In The Reader, Hanna is the uncultured one and it is her easily manipulated companion, Michael, who comes from an innately cultured world. In the second film, class is less obvious, therefore maybe more insidious. In the European high-cultural context of The Reader, the shame of illiteracy is even presented as greater than the shame of having been a member of the SS. But the only scenes in which The Reader comes alive are the scenes in which the two leads have their morally stunted worldviews tested and overturned: Hanna in court in the 1960s, charged with the murder of 300 prisoners during the war; Michael three decades later, interrogated by a death camp survivor when he tries to pass on Hanna's money (would these scenes with the one Jewish character have been or more less effective were the woman not a wealthy New Yorker, therefore fulfilling stereotypes?). Otherwise, The Reader gives the outward appearance of being complex and sensitive to the issues involved, around individual and collective guilt, while fudging a central part of it: is there ever any suggestion that, in those years between 1945 and 1966 and possibly after, Hanna felt she had done the wrong thing? The narcissism of Hanna, like the narcissism of Juliet Hulme:

They read and wrote about tragedy, play-acted, and enacted a real killing? -- Yes.
They wrote poems that suggested they thought a lot about themselves? -- Yes.
Their ideas that they were geniuses had some foundation in fact? -- They had a little foundation.
-- from the court reporting of the Star-Sun newspaper, Christchurch, August 27, 1954.