Sunday 10 January 2010

Film Review: The Lovely Bones

The critics have been cruel to The Lovely Bones, and I can't say I'm in the least surprised that, in their infinite wisdom, they've deigned to treat it to such unusual punishment. Don't misunderstand: this is a great film, decidedly above the average fare that previous reviews have compared it to. It has its faults, certainly - the pacing is off, the script doesn't always hit home, a few key performances are somewhat marginalised - but not one of the missteps this adaptation of Alice Sebold's award-winning novel makes is justification enough for the snobbish nit-picking that it has been subjected to since its release in December.

In 2002, Sebold made waves with The Lovely Bones - and not only in the speculative fiction community, which celebrated her impressive debut with a Bram Stoker award. Mainstream readers, too - not typically the type to be interested in dead girls narrating horrific tales of their own rape, murder and more from beyond the grave - found themselves taken in by the author's somber yet somehow uplifting story.

However Sebold managed to break away the usual constraints of popularity in one genre or another, her first novel won a prominent place in the popular consciousness and a film adaptation became the sort of sure thing you'd gladly bet your life savings on. But it's been eight years in the making: half a decade since it was reported that Peter Jackson and his partner had personally bought the rights to the harrowing narrative of Susie Salmon, and going on the overwhelmingly negative reaction their version for the silver screen has met with, perhaps the time to cash in on Sebold's success has passed.

There is, though, a simpler reason behind The Lovely Bones' critical dubbing. It is, after all, the first film Peter Jackson has made since his overwrought remake of King Kong, and his fondness for the epic, for the fantastic - certainly an appropriate sensibility for that piece of forgettable monkey fun and the Tolkien trilogy that preceded it - carries over to this adaptation. Snooty reviewers who presumably read Sebold's novel near enough a decade ago seem to have forgotten how laden in traits more common to genre fiction The Lovely Bones was, how pivotal fantasy and the unspeakable horrors of the everyday proved to its progression.

In some respects, the script by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens underplays the horror of the terrible fate that befalls 14-year old Susie Salmon at the outset of The Lovely Bones, the book. In its place, Jackson has staged a scene eerily reminiscent of some Silent Hill nightmare that conveys much the same sentiment, and as effectively as the literal description in Sebold's novel. This is surely the most dramatic difference between book and movie; the remainder of the adaptation is faithful, and fair. The 70s setting is reproduced authentically. The characters, despite a few differences, develop along similar lines, and the star-studded cast inhabits them well, almost without exception.

What you'll remember most about The Lovely Bones, however, is Jackson's interpretation of the almost-heaven Susie finds herself in after her murder. Her afterlife in limbo is a spectacular, surreal landscape to behold, equal parts Paperhouse and What Dreams May Come but without sacrificing its own identity. The visual effects - except for a single, conspicuously unfinished-looking sequence - are staggering across the board, brilliantly conceived and executed well. The script, sadly, segregates Susie's time in limbo from the main thrust of the narrative; her involvement in the living world she observes as if through the looking glass is rarely more than tertiary.

It's a particular shame to see standout young actress Saoirse Ronan so sidelined by the hard line established between our world and hers. Nevertheless, her performance in The Lovely Bones outshines even her role in Atonement, for which Ronan joined an exclusive club counting among its number the likes of Anna Paquin and Ellen Page by landing an Academy Award nomination at such an early age. As Susie, too, she demands attention. Ronan has all the charm and gravitas of professionals three times as old.

Wahlberg and Weisz, meanwhile, as Susie's devastated parents, equip themselves well, there's a Soprano in a supporting role - always a pleasure - and the presence of Stanley Tucci in many ways saves the paedophile responsible for it all from a decidedly inappropriate fate as the cartoonish antagonist Jackson, counter-intuitively, seems intent on presenting.

The critics are not mistaken in all their assertions: The Lovely Bones has its fair share of failings, but to suggest that Jackson's heart-felt return to the silver screen is some derivative cash-in misses the mark entirely. Some aspects of Susie's sad story are overcooked, yes, yet such slavish devotion - this film need not have been five years in the making - only serves to illuminate how dear her narrative is to his heart, and ultimately, Jackson's love for source material shines through all the imperfections of his adaptation. The Lovely Bones is an atmospheric and dazzlingly imaginative piece of cinema that treats Sebold's seminal novel respectfully, if not reverently.


  1. It's of course not actually the first film Peter Jackson has made since Return of the King. You're forgetting King Kong

  2. Oh my, I am at that. I guess that oversight says something about how forgettable Jackson's entire King Kong endeavour proved. I'm no apologist for the man, but I really did enjoy The Lovely Bones.

    Anyway, appreciate the correction. I fear that the lack of editors doesn't make me a more thorough fact-checker.

  3. Not a professional critic myself but I must agree with their savaging. I was incredibly excited to see the film and rushed off while it was in limited screening (bless living in NYC) only to walk away completely broken-hearted. The movie is an insult to Sebold's fantastic novel. Not to mention it is even more bipolar than I am. Acting was powerful, visuals moving... but the pacing and tone were beyond disaster level.

  4. Certainly the pacing and at times the tone are problems, but given the inherent problems in adapting a PG certificate film from a book that - however uplifting in the end - begins with rape, murder and dismemberment, I think Jackson and compary did alright, all things considered.

    Not their best film by a long stretch, ultimately, but I think it could have been much, much worse.