Review: The Lovely Bones (12a)

By Adam Roche

First of all, I must say that whilst I am a fan of the concept of ‘The Lovely Bones’, I was not a fan of the book when it came out. In fact, I have only recently finished reading it, on my fifth attempt, and have struggled to recommend it to anyone. I always felt that the execution was somewhat lacking, certainly boring me to sleep more than once. That’s why I was glad when Peter Jackson announced he was going to turn the text into a movie. If anyone can turn a wordy, somewhat turgid and indulgent read into a concise, emotional movie, it’s Peter Jackson.

Or so I thought.

In fact, ‘The Lovely Bones’ not only proves that Alice Sebold’s novel actually only works in that form, despite its flaws, but that Peter Jackson is not the invincible moviemaking genius that many hailed him as only a few years ago.

For those of you that don’t know, ‘The Lovely Bones’ concerns Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a 14 year old girl in a sleepy suburb of Philadelphia, who is lured to a field by her neighbour, who proceeds to rape, murder and dismember her. Her soul leaves her body and finds its way to a surreal land where Susie befriends other girls, and keeps watch on her family as they struggle to come to terms with her death. Susie’s father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of Susie’s murderer. Her mother, Abigail (Rachel Weisz), struggles not only with Susie’s death, but with the increasingly erratic behaviour of Jack. Meanwhile, Susie comes to believe that her murderer, Mr Harvey (Stanley Tucci) may be planning to strike again, and maybe at someone she knows very well.

I’d be lying if I said that ‘The Lovely Bones’ didn’t have its merits. Its main assets most surely lie in the performances of its leads. Saoirse Ronan as Susie is quite simply extraordinary, able to convey the fragility and despair, yet also the hope of a fourteen year old girl taken too soon from her life. And though the film is imbued with her voiceover, even during it’s more visual moments, it is always welcome, never intrusive and consistently heartbreaking. Here, she definitely delivers on the promise we saw in her all-too-brief performance in ‘Atonement’. Stanley Tucci, also, is mesmerising as Harvey, a truly chilling creation. An everyman with spiders beneath his skin, and even worse monsters in his safe. And the film’s most heartrending moments come from Rachel Weisz, who plays bereft effortlessly and with instant empathy. That she is absent for much of the film is the first of its crimes.

Jackson has definitely captured the period feel, with colours, fashions and even direction all harking back the Seventies. It’s odd then that his idea of heaven, when he does get to play with his sandbox, should be so downright confusing. It’s pretty, for sure, but it all feels so empty and meaningless, chock to the brim with metaphor, for sure, but also alienating and self-indulgent.

Susie wades through waterlogged cornfields to reach her true love who is marooned on a bandstand, and sinks while doing so. The mountains open to reveal lakes of shimmering silver, buildings rise and sink, rot and crumble. A lighthouse swings round and round, dazzling and disorientating. All this while Susie watches in disbelief and confusion. Us too, honey.

Jackson says that the landscape of heaven changes with Susie’s moods, which I can accept, but is he saying that she was in a “wrecked model ships on a shore” mood?

And let’s talk about pacing. Not five minutes after Susie is brutally attacked in Harvey’s underground lair, Jackson chooses to lighten the mood by introducing Susan Sarandon as Comedy Grandma, who proceeds to booze her way through a painful montage of household hilarity, including smoking in bed and putting too much soap in the washing machine, leading to, you guessed it, suds on the floor. Yes folks, Peter Jackson, in attempting to recreate the era, is using forty year old comedy devices.

And the characters, which he admittedly does a good job of introducing in the film’s initial twenty minutes, suddenly turn into maniacal vigilantes, moping brats and runaway moms. Believe me, it sounds better than it looks. And as much as I have enjoyed Mark Wahlberg in other films, here he seems out of his depth, unable to show any side to his personality except wide-eyed anger. He rather reminded me of a sad face drawn onto a balloon. Wearing a wig.

Add to the mix a seemingly lost fifteen minutes of plot (Oh, so Comedy Grandma’s sober now?), and the fact that Jackson actually makes the ridiculous icicle ending even more risible, and you have a problem.

It’s a real shame. Here was a chance to excise all the book’s problems and fashion a taut treatise on grief. Instead, Jackson seems to have thrown out all the heart in favour of a CGI carnival. It’s not a complete turkey, but that’s only because of Ronan, Tucci and Weisz who, despite the film’s shortcomings, will leave their mark on your dreams, and deserve to have the work they’ve done here recognised.

I have heard critics complaining of the film’s plot, which can’t be completely laid at Jackson’s feet, after all he only adapted the thing from Sebold’s novel, and it starts so well that you have to believe that maybe there was a time when the thing was working.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t ended that way. As it is, ‘The Lovely Bones’ is simply okay, nothing special, and certainly not lovely.

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