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Movie Review: The Lovely Bones (1/16/10)

Movie Poster: The Lovely Bones
The Lovely Bones

Directed by Peter Jackson
Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Based on the novel by Alice Sebold

Jack Salmon – Mark Wahlberg
Abigail Salmon – Rachel Weisz
Grandma Lynn – Susan Sarandon
George Harvey – Stanley Tucci
Len Fenerman – Michael Imperioli
Susie Salmon – Saoirse Ronan
Lindsey Salmon – Rose McIver
Buckley Salmon – Christian Ashdale
Ray Singh – Reece Ritchie

CLR Rating: 3/5 stars

Movie Still: The Lovely Bones

Saoirse Ronan stars as Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones
Copyright © Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Peter Jackson’s Latest Suffers from Too Much Special Effects and Too Little Character Development

Peter Jackson’s newest release The Lovely Bones bears greater similarity to his smaller films (particularly the wonderful Heavenly Creatures) than to the sprawling, epic Lord of the Rings trilogy—but it’s unlike any film he has directed previously. Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel is a startling, sometimes brutal, and often touching tale of a girl whose life ends before she even has her first kiss. Unfortunately the movie, though beautifully filmed, is an incoherent mashup of the book’s most tender aspects.

The novel opens with a striking, abrupt proclamation: “My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” After her murder, Susie watches from the Inbetween, a kind of non-Christian purgatory, as her family struggles with her death. Jackson, whose visionary filmmaking has earned him massive acclaim in the past, creates a heaven of brilliant, surreal landscapes in which Susie and her fellow dead frolic. The best aspects of Sebold’s novel, though, are the poignant, sometimes illicit relationships that formed in the wake of Susie’s murder. The film focuses far too much on the fantastic Inbetween and not enough on earth. Susie’s mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz), father Jack (Mark Wahlberg), and sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) deal with her death in their own ways, as all grieving people do. However, either to shorten the film’s length or secure a PG-13 rating, Jackson skips or glosses over many of the aspects of the novel that made it so horrific and beautiful. The result, as with so many book-to-film adaptations, is a pretty, superficial muddle.

Make no mistake, Jackson is a great filmmaker (if you forget about King Kong), and his movies are nearly always visually impressive and soundly acted. The Lovely Bones is both. If Jackson’s Inbetween bears any resemblance to a possible afterlife, we should all rejoice. Fifteen-year old Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) has real star potential, and The Lovely Bones is proof she can carry a movie. She manages to play both snotty but sweet teenager and wise voyeur with grace and self-possession. Stanley Tucci, playing Susie’s murderer Mr. Harvey, is utterly terrifying. His affected voice and piercing eyes make him nearly unrecognizable—and Jackson’s talent behind the camera is most perceptible when he focuses on Mr. Harvey. When he lures Susie into the underground hatch where she’s murdered, extreme close-ups and a distortion lens build a horrific, creeping dread. Later in the film when Susie’s sister Lindsey breaks into Mr. Harvey’s house, the tension is nearly unbearable, the only sound in the theater the whir of the projector. Weisz and Wahlberg are effective parents, grieving both separately and together in their own ways. Susan Sarandon also does well as Susie’s alcoholic, slightly nutty Grandma Lynn, but she’s comic relief in the simplest sense, which is utterly incongruous with the rest of the film and seems unnecessary.

The novel is effective partly because of its brutality. Susie is a victim of the most horrible of crimes: she’s viciously raped, murdered, and dismembered, her body shoved into a safe and dumped into a sinkhole. Yet she accepts this evil and even develops a grudging pity for her murderer, a serial killer who preys on young women and girls. The book is about the triumph of good over evil, the fantastic idea of life after death, and the transformations caused by losing a loved one. The movie, on the other hand, seems to be about how cool special effects can be. Possibly to please the MPAA, Jackson glosses over Susie’s rape (though it can be assumed) and she’s murdered off camera. To truly appreciate the ways in which Susie grows up after her death (as odd as that sounds), those things are key, and it was a mistake to skip blithely over them. Further, Jackson meticulously sets up his characters’ personalities in the first few minutes of the film, and they remain static—which is problematic considering the subject matter. The very title of book and film refers to the transformations that happened after Susie’s death: “These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections — sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent — that happened after I was gone.”

The film suffers from the same ills which often befall book adaptations, and the result is a series of events that never quite engage, a number of threads that don’t quite knit together. It presents characters that could’ve been much better developed if Jackson hadn’t poured so much energy into making the afterlife look unbelievably gorgeous. It is by no means a terrible movie; the camerawork is admirable, the effects pretty, and the acting laudable. Those who haven’t read the novel might enjoy the film, but even those who skipped the book will probably get a sense of failed potential. In trying to combine visual spectacle with an intimate, poignant tragedy, the film ends up being neither, instead residing in its own kind of purgatory.