FILM REVIEW: The Lovely Bones (2009)

The Lovely Bones (USA/ New Zealand, 2009)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci

When I reviewed The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I commented on how it was possible to admire the intentions of a director while acknowledging that their film simply doesn't work. Gilliam's good intentions and body of work maintain his status as a trusted filmmaker, even if his last three films have completely missed the mark.It is much the same story with The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel which depicts a family in crisis from the viewpoint of a murdered girl. Jackson is a great filmmaker who has tackled this area before in Heavenly Creatures. He has demonstrated that he can film the un-filmable (The Lord of the Rings) and do justice to a much-loved and revered original (King Kong). And everything since The Frighteners has proved that he is skilled with CG effects, giving his films a consistent and believable physicality even in the most elaborate of circumstances.

Unfortunately, all of this goodwill towards both project and director make the reality of The Lovely Bones all the more infuriating. It is a huge misstep for Jackson, serving as ample ammunition for his critics who claimed the success of The Lord of the Rings had gone to his head and damaged his craft. In the end, like Gilliam's recent work, the film is an admirable failure, made with all the right intentions but so heavily flawed that the wound it leaves takes time to heal.On the plus side, there are two very strong performances which effectively carry the film. Saoirse Ronan is terrific as Susie Salmon, giving a really nuanced performance which progresses through a series of challenging emotional developments with complete naturalism. Ronan was 14 when filming began, and yet she delivers lines and holds her face like someone who has been acting for 20 years. Her only real rival here is Stanley Tucci, whose serial-killer-next-door is skin-crawlingly creepy. His performance combines the eeriness of Richard Attenborough in 10 Rillington Place with the intriguing distance that he honed playing Stanley Kubrick in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.The first also has a number of scary scenes which are initially well-handled and effective at shocking an audience. The best of these is the nightmarish sequence where Susie walks around the bathroom with her killer lying in the bath and blood stained on the sink. The walls are the same shimmering, intrusive white as in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, and the stillness of that scene goes some way in suggesting what kind of brutal acts have been committed. As Tucci slowly rises from the bath and takes the flannel off his face, there's not much you can do to stop gripping your seat in a desperate bid not to scream.

But the effectiveness of this sequence hints at the first big problem with The Lovely Bones. There are huge, unmanageable lurches in tone between the tough, melancholic scenes surrounding Susie's death and the attempts at cheery sentimentality in between. Like so many of Steven Spielberg's 'serious' films, what starts off as dark, interesting and downbeat is quickly compromised by various decisions which undermine or eliminate the film's emotional impact.Susan Sarandon's character of the cantankerous alcoholic grandmother is a totally unnecessary attempt to bring quirkiness and eccentricity to the situation. What we want to see in the scenes not set in the afterlife are of a family struggling to stay together in the midst of total despair - kind of like Ordinary People, only good. But instead Jackson opts for goofiness over hard work, giving us a montage of Grandma playing in foam and setting things on fire, and thereby losing sight of the emotional thread.

A bigger problem lies in Jackson's decision about depicting heaven or the afterlife. Some films only hint at the afterlife, letting the imaginative power of the audience do the leg-work. Think of the ending of Faraway, So Close!, Laura's angel in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, or the Grey Havens in Jackson's The Return of the King. Other efforts depict heaven as somewhere universally recognisable but with a subtle twist, such as the busy black-and-white offices in A Matter of Life and Death, or the hospital-cum-railway station in The Exorcist III. In these films the familiarity of heaven is immediately comforting, but it feels different enough for it to not just be a different part of Earth.Instead, Jackson opts for a computer-generated 'in-between', coating Susie's entire world in bucket-loads of digital animation which owe a great debt to Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come. Jackson knows how to make special effects work, and in The Lord of the Rings every CG effect feels seamless and physical, or at least bound by the same physical rules. But the difficulty in depicting the afterlife is that such a place does not have to play by the same rules - we can have landscapes which defy gravity or roses flowering under frozen lakes. The result of this difference is that no matter how seamless or well-rendered the visuals are, it does feel like Jackson is making it up as he goes along, until eventually his whole rendering of 'heaven' looks and feels like a Day-Glo video game.This wouldn't be so bad if the film established a convincing link between what happens in the real world and what happens in the 'in-between'. But Susie's world always feels disconnected from what happens to her family, and the film keeps changing its mind about where and when reality intervenes. When Mark Wahlberg smashes all his ships-in-bottles, that is carried over, but when the gazebo collapses there's no clear reason for it. Because Susie cannot influence her 'heaven' in any consistent or significant way, the version of 'heaven' on screen stops being her own perfect world and becomes neither more nor less than lazy symbolic shorthand.Even more troubling than the visuals is the film's emotional heart. Films surrounding death and family disintegration are among the most manipulative when done badly, and The Lovely Bones continues this trend, serving up a brace of very uncomfortable moral messages which play out in a deeply insensitive manner.

Its first message is that death, or being murdered, can actually make a person happier. Although Susie is initially and understandably horrified by what has happened to her, she seems to get over it surprisingly quickly and only returns to the pain of her family towards the end. There have been a number of film which have handled the passage from life to death or explored death as a means to escape pain - think of Shadowlands or the ending of Return of the King. The Lovely Bones takes a potentially interesting concept and is so heavy-handed and preachy that it makes Ward's work look subtle.The other, arguably worse message surrounds vengeance from beyond the grave. This is a staple of ghost and horror stories, and so you would again expect Jackson to do a half-decent job. But whether by bad judgement or the content of the book, what should be a story about forgiveness and catharsis becomes a film about revenge, hatred and judgement from on high. The prospect of Susie's family healing and moving on is only hinted at in the epilogue, while most of the film strives to make us wish death upon Tucci's character. His eventual comeuppance, involving the recurring image of an icicle, smacks of the kind of moral duplicity which long seemed to have died out with Cecil B. De Mille.In spite of its massive failings, The Lovely Bones remains an admirable effort for Jackson. It may well be that the book is genuinely un-filmable, and that in years to come this effort will be held up as proof. As it is, the film doesn't work on any level, as a spiritual paean, a family drama or a straightforward whodunit, and it is easily Jackson's weakest film since Meet the Feebles. But in the midst of disaster, there are individual moments and performances which suggest that this is merely a very obvious false note, rather than the death knell of an entire career.

Rating: 1.5/5
Verdict: An admirable but blatant failure


seano22 said...

Hey guys, thanks for commenting on my blog! I have to compliment you here on a really well-reasoned, detailed review. What are your thoughts on The King's Speech, out of interest? I couldn't find a way to follow your site through blogspot so I've bookmarked you instead!

Daniel Mumby said...

You're welcome seano22 :) I'll be seeing The King's Speech later this week with any luck, will let you know my thoughts as and when.


Daniel Mumby said...

Review here:

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