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The Lovely Bones (2009,USA)

16/08/2011

Director: Peter Jackson       Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci 

So many of my reviews of films adapted from novels contain the phrase “I haven’t read the source novel…”. This one I’m afraid is no different. The biggest obstacle is simply finding the time, my schedule is pretty crammed between this blog, my day job and my other recreational activities. In a way it’s probably a good thing. Just because a film is a poor adaptation of the source novel doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film in its own right and so to see them free from literary preconceptions is arguably a sensible option.

So just to be clear, I haven’t read Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones despite lots of recommendations from lots of people to do so.

It’s a pretty heartbreaking story all things considered. In a nutshell, Susie Salmon (Ronan), a fourteen year old girl with a happy life and a loving family, is murdered by a serial child-killer. There are few clues as to the identity of her killer which leaves the detective in charge of the case baffled and her family (mom and pop played by Weisz and Wahlberg respectively, with a stirling effort from Sarandon as grandma) shattered with grief. The story is told from Susie’s perspective as she looks out on the world from limbo, a fantastical place full of ever changing fantasy landscapes informed by her previous life on Earth and she tries to use what little influence she has left on the physical world to bring the guilty party to justice.

The issue I have with The Lovely Bones is that the earthly action is far more interesting than the ethereal, afterlife stuff. Jackson, in what has become his basic M.O., has got his people at the Weta Workshop to work some of their digital magic on the limbo scenes in order to realise some of the more elaborate visions of the afterlife. Cornfields give way to lakes which become snowy mountain ranges before turning to rocks that dash digitally created, giant sized ships in bottles to tiny pieces. Toys and moments and experiences blend into a rolling montage of Susie’s happier memories, tainted by the dark stains of her unpleasant end. I’m sure if fans of the book will have a bone of contention with the film it will be with these scenes. Everybody who read the book must have their own interperetation of how this would have looked and almost certainly everyone imagined it differently. Without this handicap all I can really say on the matter is this, Limbo looks like it exists in a computer with almost every element being obviously CGI and I could have done without it.

The worst aspect of this is that it detracts from what is essentially a dark, powerful story of the horrendous killing of a little girl that recalls Peter Jackson’s earlier (and superior) Heavenly Creatures. The first forty or so minutes of the film are the most compelling, putting Susie’s life into context with her happy family, a prospective first boyfriend on the horizon and an emerging love of photography before cutting all this short with her murder at the hands of quiet, unassuming neighbourhood man George Harvey, played with exceptional mundane menace by Stanley Tucci. We are spared her actual murder on screen but are forced to suffer the build up, with Harvey luring Susie to the place he has prepared for her death with an unbearable sense of inevitability that is made all the more insufferable by the quiet, deliberate calm with which he goes about it. This scene was very reminiscent of a similar moment in Shane Meadows’ excellent This Is England ’86 and had me shaking with the same combination of rage and disgust and horror I felt when I saw that show. Frankly, it’s a peak of tension and horror that the film doesn’t really recover from.

We then get to see the aftermath, Harvey cleaning up himself and his house, disposing of the evidence, washing himself clean of the crime. The subtle signs are all there that this is well practiced, that he has clearly done this sort of thing before and clearly gotten away with it. When his earlier victims are revealed (one of the few great moments in the afterlife scenes) it unveils an obsession with building unique lairs in which to ensare his victims, like some kind of spider. The straightfoward, unassuming normal-ness of George Harvey is really quite chilling and Tucci’s portrayal is superb.

On top of this, the relationship between Susie’s mum and dad detoriorates as her dad becomes obsessed with trying to track down the killer himself, an obsession that drives a wedge between him and his wife. Susan Sarandon plays grandma who comes to the rescue, trying to inject some life back into the household for the sake of Susie’s little brother and sister. I would have liked the film to have spent more time with the family, exploring their process of grieving and impact of the murder of their eldest daughter on their lives more fully rather than the incessant switching back to Susie in Limboland. When you’ve seen one CGI cornfield you’ve seen them all.

The seventies setting is convincing (Jackson has form for period settings harking back to the likes of Braindead and the aforementioned Heavenly Creatures) and helps set up the plot what with the absence of mobile phones and a less heightened awareness (paranoia?) of the concept of paedophiles and child killers than young people have today not to mention less advanced detection techniques which make Harvey’s job a lot easier. It also acts as a sort of psychic safety net as you can cushion the blow of the darker elements of the story with the lie to yourself that that sort of thing doesn’t happen any more.

Overall I think I quite enjoyed The Lovely Bones, even if there are some issues with the somewhat bleak ending and the constant flitting back and forth to the heavenly setting. I would have definitely enjoyed it more with less of these scenes, or perhaps just less overly-elaborate ones and failing that, just less computer generated ones. As pretty as they are they detract from the meat of the story although presumably are almost the entire point of the book. It’s probably a film to catch on rental or on the telly but I would say it is definitely worth a watch.

 

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