"I wasn't lost, or frozen, or gone... I was alive; I was alive in my own perfect world."
Peter Jackson's work on the highly acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy propelled the Kiwi director to fame faster than he could say "My precious", and he followed up the series with the underrated period epic King Kong. After four consecutive features that represented a breakthrough in special effects and served as the very definition of "epic spectacle", Jackson opted for something more low-key for his next project: an adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones. To be sure, The Lovely Bones denotes a departure of sorts after Jackson's prior epics, yet at the same time this picture remains true to his talent for affording a grand, visually striking feel to a film which is intermixed with deeper undertones. While the film is indeed an impressive effort, this is still the most disappointing of the director's literary adaptations, as the translation from page to screen has yielded mixed results. Maybe there is some truth to the assertion that the novel is unfilmable, because if Peter Jackson is unable to do it properly, who can?
The narrator of the story, 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Ronan), opens the movie by explaining that she was murdered in 1973 by George Harvey (Tucci), who resides in her Pennsylvania neighbourhood. Since there is no mystery as to who murdered Susie (she reveals who he is via narration), the story of The Lovely Bones is not a murder mystery. Instead, the film follows Susie as she finds herself in the "in-between" world between heaven and earth where she can watch over a world she is not ready to let go of. From here, Susie is able to keep a watchful eye on her family, friends and murderer as she attempts to communicate to the living about where her remains lie and about the identity of the man who killed her.
Despite the simplicity of the storyline, Jackson (who co-wrote the screenplay with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) extended the film to over two hours, resulting in patches of sluggish pacing. The main problem is that the segues between Susie in her "in-between" world and Susie's family back on earth are not entirely successful. With an inordinate amount of time devoted to Susie, the story of her family is not told in full, resulting in short-cuts and instances of poorly motivated, contrived character action. For instance, the scene in which Jack (Wahlberg) realises that Harvey is the killer was handled poorly, as his leap of logic is unreasonable given the lack of evidence. Additionally, the need to compress bits and pieces of the book into the film has resulted in incomplete character arcs, and the ending (although representative of what happens in the book) is unsatisfying. Added to this, the handling of the timeframe is baffling. What feels like a few weeks is revealed to be 11 months. Crucially, Lindsey (McIver) is established as Susie's younger sister, and would therefore be 14 or 15 by the film's end, yet the last time she's seen in the movie she's about to tie the knot with a boy and is pregnant. Does this seem wrong to anyone else?
On a positive note, Peter Jackson afforded The Lovely Bones with a suitably mystical, ethereal and dreamlike feeling that reinforces the story's themes as well as the contrast of light and dark which is so prominent in the movie. Jackson is also competent in his ability to generate nail-biting suspense and drama. Principally, despite the foreknowledge that Susie will be killed, it's possible for a viewer to forget the pending tragedy as the little girl becomes absorbed in her photography and dreams of having a relationship. Also nail-biting are the scenes between Harvey and Lindsey, when it's difficult to look away from the screen. The computer-generated imagery used to bring to life Susie's "in-between" world are at times less than convincing, however, and Jackson's portrayal of the afterlife is disappointing. The view of heaven is a tad vacuous rather than magical. One more somewhat fatal misstep is the overuse of flashbacks, as certain scenes are replayed over and over and over again. Come on, we get it!
On the other hand, the majority of the actors submitted top-flight performances and inhabited their roles with tremendous conviction. The best performance in the film is courtesy of Stanley Tucci, who was nominated for an Oscar for his frightening, absolutely riveting portrayal of George Harvey. At the centre of The Lovely Bones is Saoirse Ronan's angelic performance as Susie Salmon. With her sharp, searching eyes and an intensity which was used to great effect in 2007's Atonement, Ronan steals the film whenever she appears on screen. While her narration is overused, her voice is pleasant and soothing to listen to. Mark Wahlberg, however (who was chosen at the last minute after Ryan Gosling dropped out), is strictly ordinary as Susie's father Jack, as he appears to simply breathe every word he says (not unlike The Happening). Meanwhile, Susan Sarandon is suitably hammy as Susie's grandmother, Michael Imperioli is effective as the police officer trying to solve Susie's murder, and Rachel Weisz is believable as the mother of the family. Rose McIver is another standout as Lindsey - she's a promising, endearing young actress.
Another factor of note is that The Lovely Bones is a PG-13 production, but the subject matter is better suited for mature audiences and should have thus been R-rated. Consequently, no mention is made of sexual assault (in the book Susie was raped by Mr. Harvey) and the violence occurs off-screen, which detracts a certain punch. In final analysis, though, The Lovely Bones has more going for it than not, and it will divide audiences.