April 21, 2010

A cult of her sadness -- Anne Perry: Interiors

This slight, German-made documentary about an English writer living a lonely existence in rural Scotland will surely get more attention in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world for a simple fact: in New Zealand, crime writer Anne Perry is who teenage murderer Juliet Hulme became; everywhere else, Hulme is who Perry used to be, decades ago.

The difference is crucial and it struck me with some force at a recent Sunday morning screening of Anne Perry: Interiors in Christchurch as the cinema slowly filled up with -- myself and one or two others excepted -- women who are Perry/Hulme's age. Of course: they were probably at school with Hulme and Pauline Parker in the early 1950s, knew the girls and remembered the murder, and were here to assess her version of events or to see what time had done to her.

There is no question that Perry has paid her dues. Both her and Parker got five years in Auckland's Mt Eden Prison, including -- in Perry's case, at least -- three months in solitary confinement. Hard sledding for a 15-year-old girl. In 1959, five years after the murder, Perry was given her new name and sent abroad (she was English to start with and had been in Christchurch for two years when she and the New Zealand-born Parker killed Parker's mother). One condition of their release was that the two would never see each other again.

That was 50 years ago. At some point in the intervening decades, Perry converted to Mormonism -- and given the fanciful alternate realities dreamt up by Parker and Hulme and so obsessively recreated in Peter Jackson's film of the murder, Heavenly Creatures, this most fantastic of Christianities seems like an apt choice. She also began writing crime novels, without ever trading on her notoriety.

Last year, I speculated that Stephen Daldry's The Reader -- starring Kate Winslet, who famously played Hulme in Heavenly Creatures -- could work as an unofficial Heavenly Creatures sequel, with Winslet's Hanna living in "penitential gloom'', in constant fear of her war crime being revealed and judged. And it seems that Perry did live in a similar way and still does. Dana Linkiewicz filmed over six weeks during a Scottish winter and that timeframe can't have been accidental: as Perry's gardener prunes dead wood in the dim light and cold outdoors, Perry is shown as unable to completely move on from the way she felt in prison five decades ago, which was "frozen''. And she has made a cult of her sadness, surrounding herself with trusted friends who double as assistants -- including her younger brother, Jonathan -- and who are, more often than not, also Mormon converts. "The thing that happened'' has clearly never been fully talked about or deeply explored. She is still every bit as imperious as the young Kate Winslet's portrayal suggested.

The prevailing mood is intimate yet oblique, a tell-all seemingly done on Perry's terms. Two sentences of terse surtitles tell us about the murder, but not its background or shocking detail (a brick to the head, 45 times), nor the strange giddiness of the girls before and after. There are no pictures of Pauline Parker, no clips from Heavenly Creatures -- indeed, the film is referred to but never named.

But should we want or demand more? Writer Peter Graham has a book out next May on the Parker-Hulme murder, to help feed our seemingly inexhaustible appetites. It will be published by Wellington's Awa Press. He saw the documentary and gave his view in a recent NZPA story:
Perry refused to be involved in [Graham's] book, but wrote Graham a letter last year mentioning the murder, which she referred to as "the tragedy".
"I thought this is a strange word to use when you've brained somebody to death and talk about it as 'a tragedy' as if somebody got run over by a train or something, " Graham says.
"But then when you think about it -- and I think this also came through in the film -- when she talks about this ghastly thing, she's really just seeing it as a tragedy to her. She's entirely seeing it through her own eyes, she doesn't consider at all what a tragedy it was for poor old Mrs Parker or Mr Parker or the rest of the Parkers, it's all about her.
"I think you do see that narcissism is still there. The mere fact that she wants to have this film crew in her house, following her around . . . is a rather sort of egotistical thing to do, and that was certainly what she was like as a child and as a teenager and she doesn't seem to have changed greatly."
Graham says Perry's tearful explanation in the documentary for what she calls "the thing that happened" appears staged.
"At the very end you get her breaking down in tears and talking about it, and really what she's saying is something that she's said before in numerous interviews: in effect 'it was all Pauline's fault, Pauline was suffering from bulimia and Pauline was threatening to kill herself and I honestly believed that if I didn't help her kill her mother then Pauline would kill herself and that would be on my conscience'."
It can seem like we want to keep punishing the teenager Juliet -- now 71 -- for her playacting, her lack of honesty, her manipulativeness. For the strangeness of her story. For her successful new life. She has done her time but we are still not satisfied -- we won't be until she cries on camera, tells us everything and we finally believe it. It may even be that we thought she was too grand, too posh, and had got away with it -- five years in Mt Eden notwithstanding. More from that NZPA story:

His book will also look at the life of Pauline Parker, but in less depth than Perry's.
Parker has refused to give interviews about the murder and little is known about her, other than she converted to Roman Catholicism, runs a children's horse riding school, and lives in Scotland's Orkney Isles.
"I'm not so interested in Pauline ... I kind of feel that she should be left alone," Graham says.
"She's never courted publicity unlike Juliet, Anne Perry. My publisher thinks I'm being far too wimpy about it but that's the way I see it."
By the way, you get more forthrightness and detail about the murder in this seven-minute interview with Scottish author Ian Rankin than in the entire 70 minutes of Linkiewicz's cautious Interiors. But is Mt Eden really "the toughest prison in the Southern Hemisphere''? I guess fiction writers are allowed the occasional embellishment ...