Friday, February 05, 2010

Review - The Lovely Bones

The Peter Jackson who directed Heavenly Creatures may have made something special out of The Lovely Bones. The Peter Jackson who has directed it, however, is one who has spent the past decade using CGI to create breathtaking worlds, and who appears to be besotted with computer-generated splendour. After an opening half hour in which he gets almost everything right, Jackson swamps The Lovely Bones in spectacle, and the poor film never comes close to recovering from that onslaught. This is an adaptation of a novel by Alice Sebold that was the reading matter du jour on every mode of public transport a few years ago, but one that I never got round to picking up myself. A bare synopsis of the book (a 14 year-old girl is raped and murdered, and she narrates from the afterlife, watching life go on without her) indicates some of the problems faced by the filmmakers here. This is very, very tricky material to get right – material that would tax the abilities of most directors – and it appears to have completely defeated Jackson.

You can pinpoint the exact moment that The Lovely Bones begins to fall apart. It occurs after Susie (played by Saoirse Ronan) has been murdered by the local paedophile (Stanley Tucci), who lured her into the underground lair he somehow constructed, unnoticed, in the middle of a field. After the murder, which occurs off screen, Susie reawakens in a kind of ghostly passage between life and death – she sees her desperate father (Mark Wahlberg) scouring the streets for her, and although she calls out for him, he looks right through her. She then finds herself in a bathroom, watching her killer soak in a bathtub covered by the grimy and bloody evidence of his crime. It's a weird and creepily effective sequence, one that harkens back to Jackson's horror roots, but Susie then moves on to "the in-between", which is where she unfortunately spends the rest of the movie.

Jackson's depiction of the afterlife is a garish, overblown mess. Perhaps this view of the world we inhabit after we pass on to the other side is supposed to be informed by the imagination of a 14 year-old girl, but it doesn't convince from the first minute, and it is often embarrassingly kitsch. After a quietly impressive opening section – which establishes a believable family dynamic , touchingly handles the issue of Susie's first crush, and draws impressive tension out of her fateful encounter with Tucci's Mr Harvey – this leap into the fantastical totally unbalances the film. Hereafter, Jackson never finds a way to move seamlessly between his real and imagined worlds, and he never finds a comfortable harmony between his narrative's sharply conflicting tones. One minute Susie is joyfully racing around her gorgeous surroundings with new friends (some of whom were Mr Harvey's previous victims), the next she's watching with anguish as her distraught family struggle to pick up the pieces. The film asks us to empathise with that family's painful struggle, and then spoils it by dumping Rachel Weisz for half the movie, turning Wahlberg into a dopey amateur detective, and inviting Susan Sarandon to come blundering into the picture as a no-nonsense, chain-smoking, soused-up grandma. This film is all over the place.

To be fair to Sarandon, she has been given very little to work with, and she is at least trying to inject a sense of life into the picture. The same could be said for Stanley Tucci, whose character is the most obvious paedophile who ever lived, but this skilful actor manages to wrestle with his one-dimensional cliché and turn him into a chillingly watchable figure. As Susie, Saoirse Ronan again shows that she is a young actress with real poise and sensitivity, and it's a shame that she is engulfed by visual effects after delivering such an authentic and affecting portrayal of an ordinary 14 year-old in the opening scenes. She remains a talent to watch.

Little can stand up in the face of the sheer wrongness of The Lovely Bones, however. Aside from one exciting and beautifully edited sequence, in which Susie's sister snoops around Mr Harvey's house, the film is just a staggering compendium of bad filmmaking choices. Perhaps this is simply a classic case of material that works on the page, and in the readers' imagination, being impossible to translate and literalise onscreen without looking silly, but the film gets worse with every passing minute. The climax in particular becomes more laughable the longer Jackson drags it out (one character's demise reminded me of Homer Simpson failing to jump Springfield Gorge), and the whole ugly farce made me long for the adaptation that Lynne Ramsay was working on before Jackson declared an interest in the project. Perhaps her version would have failed too – as I said, this does seem like extremely difficult material to get right – but at the very least, she surely wouldn't have made half of the dumfounding decisions Peter Jackson is guilty of here.