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There’s a sweetness to Alice Sebold’s 2002 mega-bestseller The Lovely Bones that belies the story of a young girl’s brutal rape and killing. That same sweetness, so magnificently captured on the page, is missing from Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Sebold’s book.
At the center of The Lovely Bones is Susie Salmon (Atonement‘s Saoirse Ronan), who will forever be 14, her age when a serial killer makes her his latest victim. Trapped between heaven and Earth, Susie witnesses how grief affects each of her loved ones differently, from a father (Mark Wahlberg) hell-bent on finding his daughter’s killer to a mother (Rachel Weisz) who grows more distant every day. Susie can do little more than chronicle a future she never had the chance to live, acting as a frustrated narrator with the power to comfort her family and identify her killer if she could only bridge the seemingly short distance between them.
Jackson has two worlds to create in The Lovely Bones: the limbo Susie inhabits and the increasingly changed world she left behind. As evidenced in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and King Kong, Jackson has no trouble creating rich, vibrant worlds filled with strange creatures and mind-boggling visuals. Yet while his hyperactive imagination worked so well in his prior projects, it’s one of the reasons The Lovely Bones fails. His technique hasn’t faltered — the end result is still stunning — but a tree transforming into a flock of birds or a giant ship-in-a-bottle crashing onto a beach feel like grand visuals for the sake of inserting grand visuals. When narrative takes a backseat to pretty pictures and neither plot nor the characters are advanced in any way, it’s the equivalent of using something shiny as a distraction, or what the TV show Glee would call “hairography.”
What Jackson manages to capture effectively is the Earth-bound portion of Susie’s life. The slow build to Susie’s death is a careful, methodical progression toward the fatal fait accompli. When Susie first encounters her murderer, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), it’s a moment almost as terrifying as the subsequent crime. As Susie is lured into an underground pit designed to be a death chamber, each moment is excruciating.
Fortunately, Jackson doesn’t wallow in the actual murder and moves quickly forward. The director removes any mention of Susie’s rape, and doesn’t show the dismemberment that occurs in the book. Allegiance to the original text aside, Jackson’s decision makes for a more powerful movie, since he relies on the imagination of the audience. It’s a more tempered, more efficient approach.
Ronan, who earned an Oscar nomination for her cold, hateful performance in Atonement, again proves her talent. Unable to interact with most of the other characters, Susie’s role as omnipotent narrator requires Ronan to stand on her own. Part wide-eyed innocence and part knowledgeable beyond any human-experience, Ronan masters being vulnerable and serene. Often forced to interact with Jackson’s surreal sets, Ronan proves that human talent can be more impressive than a virtual creation.
Wahlberg gives a strong performance as a father possessed, but it’s Tucci who commands the film. His murderous Harvey is pitch-perfect creepy; every move he makes vibrates with evil. He’s actually so disturbing that it’s a wonder Harvey escapes suspicion from the start. Fading into the background like a ghost herself, Weisz never rises to the level of a mother who has lost a child. Weisz plays distant too early in the process, so when her character officially moves on, it feels inevitable instead of shocking. On the flipside, as Susie’s smoking and drinking grandmother, Susan Sarandon is larger than life. Big in personality and big in hair, she’s actually such an overwhelming presence that she seems to be making a cameo from another film.
For all the time and talent that went into the big afterlife visuals, it’s the simple scenes that rely on the actors that are the most impressive. Watching Tucci play “cat and mouse” with a police detective, filmed entirely through the windows of a dollhouse, is far more impressive than a giant clock melting into a pastel sea. It’s too bad no one told Jackson to ”keep it simple, stupid,” because when you strip away all the special effects, the bare bones of the film are indeed quite lovely.