Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Saoirse Ronan
Director: Peter Jackson
After directing one of the greatest multi-award winning trilogies ever and remaking his own favourite film in the world, King Kong (2005), Peter Jackson has decided to go back to basics with his interpretation of Alice Sebold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’.
The result is reminiscent of Jackson’s earlier work Heavenly Creatures (1995). Both films flit between the imagination and reality of two young girls; The Lovely Bones deals with life, death and the nature of heaven and hell.
Set in 1970s Pennsylvania, fourteen year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is murdered by her neighbour Mr Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Susie then finds herself stuck in the ‘in-between’ as she watches over her grieving family, the detective trying to solve her case and, of course, the killer himself. Obviously this is not your typical family fare, though what Jackson attempts to convey is the notion of child murder to a mainstream audience. This is no doubt a bold decision, so it is a shame the end result is such a damp squib.
There are some worthy performances; Stanley Tucci has been a reliable character actor in Hollywood for several years and has now finally stepped into the limelight. At no point do we sympathize with him; there is no cop-out backstory explaining that Mr Harvey was abused as a child. Yet we understand what makes him tick, and not in a grotesque way. Tucci thoroughly deserves his Oscar momination.
Mark Wahlberg is also worthwhile as the father who never gives up hope of finding his daughter’s killer, although he is trapped in the clichéd, confined space of a familiar role.
Saoirse Ronan delivers another assured turn after Atonement (2006), cementing her place as one of Hollywood’s most promising young actresses. Her character’s life has been unnecessarily taken away. We feel her pain knowing that she can never experience what a normal teenage girl goes through every day. It’s heart-breaking, although the moment she is ready to ‘let go’ is one of silenced satisfaction.
Peter Jackson creates some tense set pieces too, including the infiltration of Mr Harvey’s house and Susie’s murder in his underground den; particularly during the build up because we can sense what is going to happen and are waiting for the killer to make his move. We can see it in his eyes, this compulsion to the take whatever he wants. Jackson also does a fine job in recreating the 1970s. Aping David Fincher’s period crime thriller Zodiac (2007), he gives The Lovely Bones a monochrome look shooting with the Red-One camera – the latest digital technology to be utilised in mainstream cinema.
Costume design by Nancy Steiner is rich with colour and decor of seventies America. Full of check shirts, kipper ties, flared trousers and polo neck jumpers – this really does bring back the era. Steiner uses costume to great affect after Susie’s murder. Everyone’s dress code changes, all apart from Mr Harvey. They start wearing darker colours reflecting their characters’ psychic state; that they just cannot let go of Susie Salmon.
However The Lovely Bones ultimately crumbles around the hour mark because it does not know what it wants to be. There are three different films occurring at the same time: murder mystery, family drama and art-house cinema, all about life and death. It just doesn’t gel together.
Unusually for Jackson there is no assurance in the directing and you do feel he is holding back to get a family rating. Though Jackson is skillful when it comes to creating sympathetic characters, here he blunders into old clichés in order to move the plot along, as demonstrated with Rachel Weisz’s mother who disappears for half the movie grieving and Michael Imperioli’s sad-sack detective.
The ‘in-between’ scenes are generally beautiful, in an imaginative world filled with startling imagery (the sight of bottles smashing releasing ships into the water is a majestic sight), although these are hindered slightly by a pretentious voice-over. These are FX heavy moments too; this time around it seems Jackson is more concerned with fancy effects than he is with character.
Jackson’s schlock horror tendencies do not help with this kind of story either. Even though The Lovely Bones is a 12A certifcate it is violent film for younger viewers. When the more intense scenes come to light they feel out of place, along with Jackson’s attempts to inject humour to lighten the mood. This shift in tone mostly occurs with Susan Sarandon’s character as a chain-smoking, alcoholic grandmother. She does have some good one-liners but most of her dialogue seems disrespectful towards the subject matter.
This is a brave attempt at an apparently un-filmable book about a taboo theme. Yet The Lovely Bones cannot find the right balance to make it the emotional and profound experience it should be. The most disappointing film of the year so far.
© 2010 – 2012, Ben McCarthy.