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Film Review: The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones (2009; Directed by Peter Jackson)

Once, several years before he turned New Zealand into Middle Earth and became one of Hollywood’s highest-paid blockbuster directors, Peter Jackson (with an ample assist from life partner and co-writer Fran Walsh) made a lovely, haunting, critically-beloved film about teenaged girls and murder in suburbia called Heavenly Creatures. It still stands out from his other mostly thrill-based genre works as powerful undeniable proof that for all his fanboy excess and technical focus, Jackson was not just a filmmaker but an artist, too.

Heaven sure looks like Rohan...

Therefore, when it was announced that Jackson and his Wingnut Films team would follow The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the King Kong remake with an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s much-debated novel The Lovely Bones, I was intrigued, as many were. I hadn’t read Sebold’s book, but its obvious themes echoed those of Jackson’s first small masterpiece, and his choice for the murdered narrator Susie Salmon, young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, was a strong analogue for a powerful young Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures. This, I thought, could be interesting, and could tell us if Jackson had come through a decade of massive-budget film production with any sort of auteurial vision intact.

Although it’s hardly the fall-down directorial disaster that Roger Ebert found it to be, The Lovely Bones is all the more disappointing for the artistic hopes that accompany it. This is a film that can’t sustain a tone, decide on a mood, or bother with a real argument about a contentious subject. It has a skewed moral sense that ricochets from soft-focus prettiness to ugly vindictive justice, as if on a dime. It is very well-acted and often visually impressive but also silly, glib, and inert. It doesn’t work as a whole, which Jackson’s other films, whatever specific criticisms you could level at them, invariably did.

Ronan, her build slight and her eyes wide (and blue; PJ and DP Andrew Lesnie really love to light up those blue eyes), anchors and vivifies the early part of the film, playing a teen girl who feels both real and also like a metaphor of complex innocence. But after she’s killed and finds herself in a seemingly-limitless CG heaven that expands and crumbles along with her emotional swings like a biospheric mood-ring, her energy is lost in spectacle and symbols. Jackson and his co-writers Walsh and Philippa Boyens deploy so many homey symbols (a lighthouse, a gazebo, ships in bottles, a bracelet charm in the shape of a house, Susie’s murderer’s doll houses) that they overwhelm each other, cancel out whatever meaning they’re supposed to convey. While Jackson’s unswerving belief in the imaginative power of computer effects lead to dizzying heights in his blockbusters, in a smaller drama like this, it fails him and hobbles his film.

It’s hardly the only crippling factor, though; The Lovely Bones is full of things that inspire glances of derisive disbelief. The attempts at humour are pitched way off: Susie’s adolescent play-acting in her private heaven with another cute murdered girl doesn’t fit with anything, and another goofy montage of her grandmother, a smoking, drinking, big-’70s-haired Susan Sarandon, is laughable in all the wrong ways. Susie’s father (played with understated passion by Mark Wahlberg) is saddled with a determined-daddy subplot, and her shattered mother (Rachel Weisz, also understated but not up to her usual high standards here) is predictably wracked with grief. Susie’s putative boyfriend Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie) seems only briefly bothered by her death (as a teen boy probably would be), and the way they get their post-mortem first kiss is supposed to be spiritual but is, in fact, nonsense. As believable as Jackson’s veteran actors make their characters’ grief seem, the film doesn’t haven’t much interesting to say about it. Jackson has to rely on symbols like a guttering candle to represent Susie’s passing because either Sebold or the screenplay that adapts her words provides little of consequence to give the mystery of death any sort of poetic depth.

 

If you build it, she will come...

The Lovely Bones is not all bad. Even if the CGI heavens can be corny, there are some lovely images deployed (ships in bottles smashing on a beach, an infinite cornfield morphing into a swamp, the gazebo in the midst of a lake, etc.). Stanley Tucci’s creepy serial killer Mr. Harvey won a deserved Oscar nomination, too. He’s twisted in predictable ways, with his unhealthy interest in children and bachelor meticulousness, but he always suggests unseen perversions, too; there are doors in this man’s dark corridors that shall forever remain closed. Harvey’s a hateful villain, for sure, but the graphic violence of his demise (driven, according to Jackson, by audience feedback in previews, never a good gauge for artistic expression) feels like something out of a more uncompromising and mean-spirited film (as well as looking far too much like the computer-faked moment it was).

The two suspense scenes involving Harvey’s implied threat to Susie (in an hand-dug underground clubhouse) and her older sister (who has snuck into his house to find proof of his crimes) are probably the film’s best, as Jackson is able to give himself up to genre-film abandon, tightening the screws on the audience until the tension is almost unbearable. Still, his success in these moments only serves to throw his failure in the more difficult business of making art into sharper relief. The Lovely Bones could have served as evidence that the nuanced filmmaker who crafted Heavenly Creatures had not been lost in the complex logistical machinations of a decade of blockbuster productions. Instead, it serves as undeniable proof that Peter Jackson still remembers that filmmaker but can no longer summon him at will. Little wonder that he’s elected to return to Middle Earth for The Hobbit films, then; he can’t really portray reality with conviction anymore, so he might as well go back to fantasy.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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