19 February 2010

Movie Review: The Lovely Bones


The Lovely Bones
2009, 135mins, 12A
Director: Peter Jackson
Writer (s): Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Alice Sebold (novel)
Cast includes: Mark Wahlberg, Saoirse Ronan, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Jake Abel, Rose McIver
UK Release Date: 19th February 2010

Adapted faithfully from Alice Sebold’s novel of the same name “The Lovely Bones” marks a change of pace for director Peter Jackson. Since the turn of the 21st Century Jackson has shunned his splatter roots and pursued bigger and more bombastic productions; albeit with mostly universal acclaim. His “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy is more or less the benchmark for modern day fantasy filmmaking and whilst his remake of “King Kong” may have disappointed financially it was met with nods of approval from the cinematic community. “The Lovely Bones” has some very extravagant visual effects but this is a more human and emotionally driven tale than Jackson’s recent output; reminiscent in a sense of the directors excellent 1994 picture “Heavenly Creatures”. I don’t think this translation of Sebold’s story quite gets on a par with the aforementioned films but it is a well made movie in its own right; certainly stronger than the current mixed word of mouth and uninspired box-office would suggest.

The film is narrated by Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) who at the very opening tells us she’s dead. The first 20 minutes of the film showcase her murder at the hands of local weirdo George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) and the grief her family are forced to feel by her loss. Susie watches from the afterlife as Harvey evades capture and her once loving family unit is torn apart. Her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) can’t deal with Susie’s death and eventually leaves whilst her father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) becomes guilt ridden and obsessed with tracking down the murderer. Only Susie’s sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) really manages to keep a handle on things and begins to quite openly suspect Harvey of committing the deed. The film is split into several very distinct sections. The first deals with building up the characters and carrying out the villainous killing. The second zones in on the emotional aftermath and Susie’s time in the afterlife, with the final segment turning into a manhunt as both Jack and Lindsey move against Harvey despite the law enforcements lack of support.

“The Lovely Bones” is about as good an adaptation of the source as anyone could have hoped for; after all this was a story deemed unfilmable when Jackson launched into pre-production. There are obvious flaws with his interpretation and some editorial choices kill particular characters but overall this is a compelling and fairly rewarding motion picture. It’s a film bolstered by great performances and it ultimately succeeds in conveying the central story even if some subplots are given a swift sweep aside. Fans of the book should be pleased with what they see in Jackson’s film; it’s not perfect but anyone expecting it to be was clearly pitching their expectations at an unreasonable height.

The visions of heaven look good even if at times they seem over stylized. The best shots of Susie in the afterlife are definitely the more subdued and moody efforts that don’t overuse CGI or overpower the viewer with intoxicatingly vibrant imagery. Given that nearly all these environments are digital Ronan does a fabulous job of reacting to them and narrates with grace and poignancy. Some of the early dialogue seems clunky but things eventually straighten out and muster a degree of gravitas and poetic beauty. The role of Susie is pivotal in this story; your opinion of her is directly proportionate to your involvement in the plot. Without a credible Susie it would be impossible to loathe Harvey or truly feel Abigail and Jack’s sadness. Thankfully Ronan nails the part and brings the correct amount of energy and pathos to the role. It’s an incredibly mature performance and one deserving of more awards attention than its garnered.

Rachel Weisz is given the short straw by a screenplay that cuts off the meat from her character’s bones. She seems to be simply going through the motions and by the conclusion feels like the film’s most one dimensional character. Wahlberg on the other hand fights bravely with his role and digs up some of his best acting since “The Departed”. Wahlberg injects Jack with the right amount of emotional drive and tragic love; enough to forgive the occasional moment where he reverts back to the grimacing and hardboiled style of acting he’s been pushing for the last few years. Stanley Tucci is creepy yet tortured as Harvey and definitely proves that less is more when conjuring up a memorable villain. It’s hard to sympathise with the character given the enormous evil of his actions but Tucci does a good job of demonstrating the characters desperation and unease concerning his own bloodlust. Susan Sarandon is adequate as Susie’s drunkard grandmother and other cast members like Reese Ritchie (playing Susie’s first crush) and Rose McIver do solid jobs.

The subject matter of “The Lovely Bones” is raw and horrible, so it’s surprising to see Jackson sanitize it so obviously. In the book it is made clear that Susie was both raped and murdered, here only the killing aspect is touched on. Jackson also doesn’t labour on the act itself instead showcasing the violence through shots of blood encrusted blades and other murderous paraphernalia. All this said “The Lovely Bones” is still far from family friendly; there are some disturbing images and a rather messy end for one of the key characters come the conclusion. I actually don’t take much issue with Jackson removing some of the edgier material because he handles the core relationships and bonds with enough skill and determination to render added viscera needless. I acknowledge that many folks don’t seem to feel the same way but I was happy enough to get caught up with the other elements and let the violence slip by.

The shift from the supernatural to reality is steady and digestible; whilst the three distinct acts blend together robustly enough. The final third is the most exciting and features a wonderfully staged sequence with Lindsey inside Harvey’s house which showcases Jackson’s ability to conjure tension and suspense from the simplest things. However this more thrilling climax wouldn’t be possible without the evocative and emotionally rich opening chapters; which build up the characterization and tone well. The production doesn’t score too highly on its depiction of time passing but ultimately that’s not a huge problem. Jackson does rely on his characters dialogue and one particular gimmick to showcase the months flying by but there are enough positives amidst the exposition to make this a forgivable flaw.

The musical score is haunting and attractive at the same time; bolstered by Jackson’s exquisite cinematography. “The Lovely Bones” is a gorgeous film to look at and highly atmospheric from start to finish. There are multiple problems with the film but I have a feeling its reputation will improve in years to come; for now it’ll have to settle for being an imperfect but spectacular storytelling odyssey.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2010


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