The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones

*

Reviewed by: Nick Da Costa

It took me a 12-hour bus ride, escaping the chaotic, commercial south of Thailand to tear tearfully through The Lovely Bones when it was just a novel - a most curious of coming-of-age story, as well as a heartbreaking study on grief, mourning and accepting loss.

Taking that into account, Peter Jackson deserves to be congratulated for doing such a sterling job of eradicating nearly every scrap of not just fondness for the source, but also memory of it. For a story that thrives on understanding how people cling to memories, almost to the point of destructiveness, and looks upon them as missed opportunities, this is unforgivable.

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It’s not even a case of picking out the individual scenes that are so artlessly handled. The rhythm is lost from the very beginning as we are introduced to the Salmon family, specifically 14-year-old Susie (Saoirse Ronan), who splits her time between photography and day-dreaming about an English boy who attends the same school.

A normal life. A normal family. Both aspects we, as the viewer, would love to connect with. Unfortunately, instead of observing, events are narrated to us. Poor Saoirse reduced, for a large part of the opening and much of the film that follows, to little more than a mouthpiece. You come to the incredulous conclusion early on that this is a filmmaker lacking in confidence. The editing accentuates this, as a brief capture of Susie’s early years stop-starts before us like rushes from home videos. Not the assured direction of someone coming from an epic.

It’s only when Susie makes the fateful decision to dawdle on a walk back from school, accepting an invitation to see what neighbour George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) has built in the cornfields, that the movie gets going somewhat. It’s also the point at which Jackson realises what a difficult task he has undertaken.

Susie’s subsequent death and the uncovering of her murderer’s identity are less important than the painfully real mysteries of youth explored as the story unfolds. It’s not meant to be a thriller. It’s certainly not meant to have its pace or its trappings. And yet, for much of the movie, this is what we get. A muscle-car selected for a scenic trip. The book a delicate flower, the film a machine; carelessly loud, gear-shifting erratically. Just as you try to take in the beauty of a sunset, it’s already rushed out of view.

The murder itself sets the uneven tone. The location, an underground construction gifted as a playhouse. A sick Saw-like twist on a Hobbit’s burrow that screams 'deathtrap'. Shot in low-angles, wide-angle distortions, grotesque close-ups; benign objects made malign. Tucci’s performance itself is an ill-judged pantomime of grimaces, harrumphing menace and moans. Subtlety is lost just when it should be clung to, ensuring Susie’s shift into the In Between - the limbo between life and death - is affecting, rather than absurd, as it is here; a cheap looking alien visitation, floodlights piercing fog and tree line as Susie streaks across the cornfield.

The more we see of this 'other' world, the worse it gets. If Jackson was hoping for ethereal over corny, he’s failed decisively. The overblown CGI shames the man who made ingenious use of practical splatter effects in Bad Taste and Braindead and took us on vivid flights of fantasy in Heavenly Creatures. You could almost forgive him, if it came close to matching the imaginative play that was in the novel - our minds given room to stretch as we filled in all the spaces the text left behind. Unfortunately Jackson’s In Between feels little more than a pastiche of other movies (Contact, the beach scene), TV adverts (garish, vacuous) and music videos (loud, ephemeral). Mix the surreal joy of Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet with Bernard Rose’s grasp of a young mind (Paperhouse) and you might have something. This just isn’t it.

Overcooked is the word. You might admire the details, but the perfection is so vivid that it feels unreal. The contrast is lost. When we dip back into Susie’s world it feels inconsequential - the palpable lost to the pixellated. What emotional resonance remains is choked, either by the sound design - a ridiculous whine of guitars as Harvey’s murderous desires resurface - or Mark Wahlberg's acting in the role of Jack Salmon, Susie's dad. He flips from goofily earnest to desperately blank just when we need him most. At the critical point when the father-daughter connection is being realised, it feels random and unimportant.

You’re left with the sad realisation that you don’t feel any bond with this family at all. Suzie’s siblings seem to drift away, a first kiss for one of them nothing more than popcorn-crunching entertainment for those in the In Between. Susan Sarandon walks in from another movie entirely as the drunken, irresponsible grandma and Rachel Weisz has little to do but play a bitch of a mother. It’s accurate to an extent - Abigail Salmon is the least appealing of the novel’s characters. But this a woefully curtailed portrayal; her departure poorly motivated, her return an afterthought necessary to get the film over and done with. This, mercifully, Jackson does, but neuters the novel in the process. It’s an odd feeling. You’re thankful the ordeal is over, but disappointed at such timidity. A sexless, blunted end rather than one that affects or lasts.

Reviewed on: 21 Feb 2010
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A murdered young girl observes her family from limbo.
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Read more The Lovely Bones reviews:

Stephen Carty ****

Director: Peter Jackson

Writer: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Alice Sebold

Starring: Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg, Saoirse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, Jake Abel, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Reece Ritchie, Rose McIver, Nikki SooHoo, Amanda Michalka, Thomas McCarthy, Carolyn Dando, Andrew James Allen, Charlie Saxton

Year: 2009

Runtime: 135 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US, UK, New Zealand

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