– Summary –
Director : Peter Jackson
Year Of Release : 2009
Principal Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Saoirse Ronan, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Christian Thomas Ashdale, Reece Ritchie, Charlie Saxton, Amanda Michalka, Jake Abel.
Approx Running Time : 130 Minutes
Synopsis: When a young girl is murdered, a family must come to terms with their loss. The girl, who cannot move on from her life, tries to find some closure in the pain this event has caused her family.
What we think : Awkwardly balanced between a family drama and an adult-oriented thriller, The Lovely Bones is nothing if not stylish. Peter Jackson’s assured hand is in every frame of this film, although ultimately the film’s message gets lost in a junket of psycho-dribble and half-baked angst. Ultimately disappointing, there’s enough here to warrant at least one viewing, but the overall tone and negative denouement leave a somewhat bitter taste in this reviewers mouth.
There were a few people scratching their heads when they heard the news that Peter Jackson, the Oscar winning director of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, was going to take on a film like The Lovely Bones. After all, it wasn’t the director’s normal territory. For a man more attuned to splatter horror, widescreen epic fantasy and adventure, The Lovely Bones represented something of a departure from his normal fare. Sure, he’d attempted serious dramatic before with Heavenly Creatures, but hadn’t achieved his fame with that kind of film. The director himself had stated that he needed a break from large-scale film-making, after 8 years on LOTR and another couple making the ego-scratching debacle that was King Kong. Yet, The Lovely Bones isn’t a story I’d have expected from Jackson. Perhaps this is a good thing: a director who doesn’t leave his comfort zone eventually becomes stale and uninteresting. Just look at Woody Allen, for example. His career may have spanned half a century and his film output resembles a football score, but his creativity is starting to become a little hit and miss, due mainly to the fact that a lot of his films are pretty similar. I’d never heard of The Lovely Bones prior to Jackson’s announcement that he’d take it on. I’d never read the book. I still haven’t, so I can’t comment on the film adaptation being an accurate portrayal of the original text.
The Lovely Bones ain’t a feel good flick, let’s state that right from the outset. The themes and story in this film are both very adult and incredibly sad. It’s the 1970’s, Pennsylvania, and young Suzie Salmon has found her two first loves: a camera, and a young lad at her school that she has a crush on. However, before she can really embrace both of these things, she is killed by a local man who turns out to be a serial killer. That may be giving away the plot of the film, but it’s not the point of the film. The point of the film seems to me to be Suzie’s acceptance (or not) of her fate, as she’s stuck in some sort of fantastical purgatory (the “in between”) while events in the real world transpire around her. Her family, particularly her mother and father, struggle to overcome their sense of loss, with her father becoming obsessed with finding his daughters killer.
Mark Wahlberg plays Jack Salmon, Suzie’s father, who lives an idyllic life in rural Pennsylvania, married to Abigail (Rachel Weisz) and with three charming children, Lindsey, Buckley and Suzie herself, played by a wonderful Saoirse Ronan. Suzie’s killer, the sublime Stanley Tucci, is George Harvey, a man with a history of murdering young girls all over the country. Tucci was nominated for an Oscar for his work here, and to my mind should have won. He’s pure evil as Harvey, a quiet, unassuming man prone to outbursts of extreme violence and sadism. It gives me chills just thinking about his performance here, he’s so eerily creepy. If The Lovely Bones is worth watching for one thing, it’s Stanley Tucci’s towering portrayal of one of cinema’s most chilling characters in years.
Wahlberg and Weisz are solid in their roles of the mourning parents, even if at times they’re underdone by a script lacking cohesion and motivation. Neither character is given enough backstory to engage the audience beyond the standard “angry unresolved tension” motivations, and while Weisz is a top class talent, here she’s adrift in mediocrity. Wahlberg again plays the same, half-whispering/half-mumbling character he’s done in countless roles before this one, although with Jackson directing he’s generally above par.
No, the real star of this film, for a truly luminous performance as Suzie Salmon, is Saoirse Ronan. Wide eyed, innocent and a genuine talent, Jackson scored a winner with her casting. While I didn’t find much to embrace in her actual story arc, Ronan’s performance is so winning that half the time I didn’t really care. She’s a natural in front of the camera, and I can sense big things coming from this Irish lass. Ronan was nominated for an Oscar for her work in Atonement (a film which, at the time I write this, I have yet to see) and picked up a number of lesser awards for her work in this film; after this I think her future as an actress is assured.
While the acting on The Lovely Bones is first rate, and there are moments of genuine wonder to behold in the film overall, generally speaking, the storyline left me cold. The mystical “In Between” world inhabited by Suzie after her murder smacks a great deal of the Robin Williams cry-fest What Dreams May Come, a special effects bonanza for WETA Digital and a great testament to the power of CGI. It’s beautiful, sure, but what does it mean? As a viewer, it’s a bit “meh”. In the context of the story, which rambles along at a snails pace every time we visit Suzie in her predicament, it’s a bit waffly. To be honest, I was more interested in the story arc of Jack Salmon trying to find Suzie’s killer, and George Harvey’s skirting of his own discovery. These moments made the film vastly more interesting. Somehow, I couldn’t connect with a girl who’d been murdered and was now the narrator of the film. I tried, I really did. But Suzie was dead, and regardless of the outcome of the film’s real-world plot, that fact was never going to change, meaning any resolution was going to be tinged with sadness.
Which was going to be a problem for Jackson, as director. Somehow he had to engage the audience in Suzie’s fate, or the resolution of that fate, and I think he failed. Not through lack of trying, but the story’s lack of humour, lack of positive momentum, makes for a harrowing view which completely overpowers the superb visual effects. It’s hard to know if The Lovely Bones works better as an exploration of the afterlife (depending on your religious views on the matter, Jackson remains quite secular in his examination of the “in between”) or a straight thriller in the vein of CSI or Criminal Minds, with the killer seemingly one step ahead of the law. Personally, I prefer the hair-standing thrill of Tucci’s slimy serial killer evading capture than the somewhat wishy-washy (and unexplained) events in the In Between with Suzie herself, and if the point of the story is to examine the latter, then it was lost on me.
Amid the wonderful character moments in The Lovely Bones are some quite wonderful (if empty) special effects, hidden by a lacklustre narrative devoid of audience empathy. There’s nothing for us to root for save the capture/discovery of Harvey as the murderer, and even then his “ending” is underwhelming in it’s simplicity, so by the time the closing credits roll, you’re left with that empty feeling of unresolved anger. A minor spoiler here, but Suzie’s murder is never resolved, a point I’ll say right here leaves me cold to the film overall. Such a brutal event, causing such pain and anguish, needs resolution (at least for me it does), and the script doesn’t generate enough alternative emotion to allow us to leave things unresolved at the end. There’s not enough punch elsewhere in the film, and our focus remains entrenched on seeing justice done throughout, meaning by the end, we’re let down with the lack of it.
Don’t get me wrong: The Lovely Bones is a beautiful film to watch, with Jackson bringing his A-game to play this time. The visuals cannot be faulted, and at times the film reaches levels of great cinema (particularly any time Tucci is on-screen), but the arc involving the lead character just can’t sustain the audience’s attention. It’s all ethereal junk, to be honest, and most of the time, it lost me. As far as recommending this film to new audiences, I’d be hard pressed to do so with any real enthusiasm, save for Tucci and Ronan’s performances, which elevate the material above it’s depressing, dark roots.
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