Anne Perry: Interiors, currently streaming on TVNZ on Demand, looks into the famous New Zealander’s life after moving to Scotland. But how much can we learn when Perry herself seems incapable of true self-reflection?
Anne Perry is a mystery writer based in Scotland. She’s written a lot of books, of which I have read exactly one (A Funeral in Blue, 2001). My abiding memory of that book was that one of the characters was a nurse in the Crimean war who hated Florence Nightingale. I think that probably says a lot more about the author than it does about Florence Nightingale.
Juliet Hulme was 15 years old when her and her best mate, Pauline Parker, murdered Pauline’s mother Honorah Rieper in a park in Christchurch. Their story is legendary in New Zealand thanks mostly to Peter Jackson’s frankly stunning Heavenly Creatures, a film which awakened the bisexuality of an entire generation of New Zealand women, or at least as far as me and all my bi goth mates are concerned.
Juliet Hulme and Anne Perry are, of course, the same person.
Personally I think it’s quite rude to dig up shit about someone’s past and use it to embarrass them, so it’s fine that Anne Perry was mad as hell when her former life was uncovered in the ’90s. Until then she’d been living as Anne Perry who-no-one-knew-was-Juliet-Hulme and not being bothered by journalists and hate-mail writers. But she strikes me as having a very odd reaction to her “true” identity being public knowledge.
She also very much appears to hate New Zealand and New Zealanders, which is fine if a bit over the top. Relatedly, here’s a story I heard about Anne Perry once: A New Zealander working as a broadcast journalist in the UK was slated to interview her for the radio. When Perry arrived she said to the journo, “I know where you’re from, and I won’t talk about it.” The “it”, of course, being the murder for which Perry was tried, convicted and imprisoned.
“Fair enough!”, thought this journalist, “We’re here to talk about your books anyway.” Once the interview began, not only did Anne talk about the murder, she is the one who brought it up, and practically wouldn’t talk about anything else. Her position was that she was an unwilling accomplice to somebody else’s crime.
Now look, I don’t know how true this anecdote is, but taken with other evidence of her character and attitude I don’t not believe it.
Back to the film, whose description claims that it is an exploration of guilt. Let’s see how that actually measures up.
Instantly we get a feel for who Perry is as a person: commanding, self-assured and utterly humourless. It opens with her at a writers’ conference saying, “Empathy isn’t easy.” She gets cross when someone says she’s written forty-five books when the actual number is fifty-five. She tells people to go to Italy. She gives character-building writing advice like “The protagonist will change. If they do not change, what was your story about?”
So will our protagonist, Anne Perry, change over the course of the documentary?
We quickly make our way into a recurring motif in the film: Perry’s pithy missives about the nature of life and being of good character. “I haven’t changed my mind on what I believe and what my values are in a long time. I haven’t achieved them yet but I’m working on it.” The viewer hopes these beliefs and values will be revealed. Spoiler alart: they sort of are and they sort of aren’t.
Perry lives in a small town in Scotland with lots of big fields. The people in her life whom we meet are limited. Her brother prints out her emails for her to read, and falls asleep on the couch while she’s proofreading out loud. Her typist Elizabeth transcribes Perry’s handwritten pages in a sickly pink painted attic office/home gym.
Her best friend – a kind but tired older Scottish woman who I can only assume is called Margaret or Moira or Morna – provides an ear to Perry and dishes the viewer the most devastating gossip. “If Anne is unhappy then most of the people are here are affected by it.” So, you know, normal human behaviour.
The film uses an odd narrative technique whereby the details of her crime are never revealed. In the first ten minutes there’s hints of “her past” and “she didn’t have a childhood”, before Perry herself launches into a bit about solitary confinement. And this is what bothers me about Anne Perry. She makes claims about her own treatment as a prisoner that further a narrative of persecution. She was put in solitary, but apparently not for anything she did, and also claims that she was the only prisoner “before or since” to be in solitary confinement. Finally, she says that after three months of solitary confinement she “got on her knees” and confessed she had committed the crime, and that she was sorry, and then she “began to heal”.
Anne Perry: Interiors is a film about the ways in which a person can maintain their version of events by leaning heavily on the people around them. Perry tells her side of the story to her brother, her friend, the people at her church, and they become complicit in her agenda. A much younger church associate (I think his name is Simon? For whatever reason, they never tell you anyone’s name in this film) describes the murder of Honorah Rieper as “something that happened” and “a big mistake”, something that affects Perry more than anyone else, victim and victim’s family included.
About halfway into the film comes the biggest revelation so far: she’s a Mormon! Her brother, who I think is called Jonathan, is totally unimpressed by the idea of Joseph Smith and the golden plates. There’s a great bit where he claims that belief in God is useless compared to the guidance from above that comes from the SatNav in his car. I’m obsessed with him.
Other people seem to have more faith in Perry’s allegiance to religion than she really gives any evidence of. Elizabeth the typist claims Perry’s books have “the principles of the gospels” woven into them, and that the books help people who have “done something in their lives that they are sorry about”. Meanwhile in the car on the way back from church, Perry is rolling her eyes about children’s testimony. “Some people see it as a sign you’re very spiritual when you burst into tears. Well see I grew up in a culture where it’s just a sign you’ve got no self-control”.
I wonder what the other congregants thought when they heard that? Although since she’s got such a stranglehold on them all I bet she forbade them to ever watch the film. She gives a hauntingly judgmental speech where she says that it’s who you are when you die that matters, not what you did while you were alive. “Above all, do I really care about other people, or am I always the centre of the picture?” Great question.
There’s an abiding sense from the people that surround her that being able to talk openly about the murder is going to help Perry to heal. There’s a brief section in the middle of the film where the brother, the best friend, and the younger Mormon guy all talk about how “the occurrence” or “the secret” have prevented her from finding a man.
Her brother Jonathan throws epic shade by suggesting that it’s too late for Perry to find a man because her “personality and intelligence would make it rather awkward”. Jeez if my brother ever said that about me… However by referring to the crime as “the thing that happened”, they effectively strip all responsibility from her and frame her as a victim. This plays directly into Perry’s version of events. She has used this framing device before – in an interview with Ian Rankin, Perry says she committed a crime as an accessory, that she “helped someone kill another person.”
Something I really like about this film is that while it attempts to be a revisionist history, at least from the standpoint of the protagonist, a different kind of truth ends up being revealed. The character and personality of Perry and the people around her can’t be obscured by well-rehearsed monologues on the nature of goodness, or parables about the pleasures of hard work.
In the final moments of the film Perry gives a description of her feelings and circumstances at the time of the murder. While she reveals that she felt trapped by her friendship with Pauline Parker, her final stand is to lay the blame firmly at Parker’s door, and to further portray herself as a victim. Much like in the Ian Rankin interview, she uses her position to rewrite the narrative.
“I helped someone to kill another person” is a far cry from “I murdered somebody”. I don’t begrudge her or anyone else the opportunity to redeem themselves but it seems like a false proposition to say in one breath “I have served my time and healed” and with the next “my crime was actually this and not that”.
As a result, this documentary is one of the strangest and most compelling pieces of narrative I’ve ever had the pleasure of stumbling upon. It relies on the power of awkward silences to force us towards confession. Perhaps it’s true that Perry feels that she was an unwilling accomplice rather than a full participant. Without giving the audience any sense of what the crime actually was, the documentarian leaves the details in Perry’s practiced hands.
The irony of a crime novelist rewriting the history of her own crime is not lost on me, but I came to Anne Perry: Interiors armed with a more than passing knowledge of the murderers and the details of their trial and punishment. This film forces us to confront the contrasts in morality and behaviour. Without a hero, there is no obvious allegiance for the audience. The film subtly manipulates your instinct and your intellect into two simultaneous positions. You feel enormous sympathy for a teenage girl caught in an emotional whirlwind from which she feels she can’t escape. But you also can’t help feeling a measure of cynicism – verging on contempt – for an adult obsessed with crafting a narrative of her own victimhood.
Maybe Anne was right: empathy isn’t always easy.
You can watch Anne Perry: Interiors on TVNZ on Demand right here.