Monday, January 18, 2010

The Lovely Bones

Love does furnish a death.

Before I start, I'd just like to say what Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lovely Bones does well. It gets Susie - the young girl whose death is the catalyst for the story - exactly right, with Saoirse Ronan perfectly capturing the anger and sadness of a girl watching her family experience everything she no longer can. It creates a beautiful, if sometimes perplexing, heaven for her to inhabit as she watches her family come to terms with her death. Finally, Stanley Tucci is spellbinding as her murderer, giving the character of George Harvey a sadness and melancholy that never quite disguises the awfulness of his actions.

Sadly, that's about it, as the rest of the film consists of lumpen melodrama, unsuccessful attempts at comedy and a tonal dissonance that prevents it ever turning into a cohesive film.

Focusing the story on the Salmon family - excising many minor characters that feature in Alice Sebold's novel - was a bold and interesting take on the material that could have made for a more intimate drama to anchor Susie's experiences in the afterlife, but Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens never strike a balance that allows each family member to express themselves and give weight to their emotions. We know they must be grieving because they have lost a daughter/sister/grand-daughter, but with the exception of Susie's father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) there is little evidence of their grief for us to relate to. They all cry and they all sigh and they all grieve, but we don't know who these people are and their sorrow rings hollow.

The way the film ignores Susie's mother, Abigail (Rachel Weisz) is symbolic of the problems caused by this lack of identity. Abigail's reaction to Susie's death is to grow distant from her family and leave because she can't stand to live in the same house where her daughter once lived. Her departure is meant to represent a great fracture in the family dynamic and her return is meant to be the emotional lynchpin of the story, but both moments fall curiously flat because we don't know her or her pain. Abigail's return lacks any power because we never noticed that she was gone in the first place.

Before anyone shouts SPOILERS, I'd just like to point out that revealing the identity of Susie's murderer as I did in the introduction does nothing to spoil the film because we know who it is very early on: we see him do it. Although I'm no fan of the book, I felt that one of its strengths was the dramatic tension created as we, through Susie, watched the two-fold story of her murder unfold; her grief-stricken father's search for the truth contrasted against the efforts of George Harvey to cover it up. This could have driven the film too, but that vital tension never materialises; Jack Salmon phones the police and assembles dossiers, but there is no sense that he is piecing the puzzle together. Eventually, in the final half hour, Jack has his 'Eureka!' moment but it comes too late; just as his discovery will not bring Susie back, it can not bring the film to life.

For all its faults I can't say that The Lovely Bones is an irredeemably bad film. It's a visually stunning film anchored by a talented cast, particularly Ronan and Tucci, and, although it misses most of the time, when it hits it attains a poignant beauty that can be dazzling. It's just a shame that for the most part it is so dull.