The Lovely Bones has been heralded by some as Peter Jackson’s return to the realm of small, harrowing personal stories explored in his magnificently shocking 1994 film Heavenly Creatures. But the hoof prints of big budget Hollywood moviemaking are stamped all through it – from the miscasting of Mark Wahlberg as a bereaved father, to the tell-all voice over narration taken from a bestselling novel, to the effervescent landscape shots of a pretty Purgatory world that wouldn’t look out of place in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). For a director coming away from four dizzyingly excessive blockbuster behemoths (The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong) any human-orientated drama – even ones with loopy supernatural twists, like this – would look decidedly low-key.
Alice Sebold’s novel and Jackson’s film tells in first person the story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) who, in 1973, is raped and murdered by one of her neighbours. Susie finds herself in a sort of half-way land between the real world and heaven, where she can view the world as it progresses without her. Back on earth, the killer, neighbourhood “nice” guy George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) is yet to be found or even suspected. But Susie’s dad (Wahlberg) won’t give up the search and hounds the local detective (Michael Imperioli, from TV’s The Sopranos) to look harder for his daughter’s killer, suspecting he may be somebody Susie knew and trusted. Oh Marky Mark, how right you are – but remind me: why did they let you in this movie?
The story is conventionally tied together and the plot very simple. There is no putting together of clues to catch the killer, just a simple, convenient discovery mingled with supernatural assistance from Susie, which means the writing never has to be clever. There is a definite eeriness to the pre-murder scene in which Harvey lures Salmon to his underground lair, as there would be with just about any scene implying the rape and murder of a teenage girl, but it’s tastefully handled. When Salmon bolts away into the darkness, the audience are uncertain whether she is dead or alive, and the mood is oddly spiritual, almost consecrated.
Atmospherically The Lovely Bones is sharply directed by Jackson, who has always had a great eye for a good shot, but cinematographer Andrew Lesnie’s bright and clinquant colour scheme jars with the story’s darker elements and its glossiness seems to seep into the cast’s one-note, barebones performances. Tucci does a decent job balancing a faux friendly exterior with a dark inner streak but he lacks menace – imagine what Dylan Baker or Steve Buscemi could have done with the role – and Wahlberg summons little gravity, not pulling off the depth required for a desperate bereaved father. There is something awfully one dimensional about the characters in The Lovely Bones, Jackson’s direction too greatly skewed to the visuals. His prettily rendered half-way/Purgatory world is reminiscent of some of the afterlife landscapes depicted in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come (1998) and it’s nice, eye candy stuff, but inevitably this is the kind of world that would resonate more powerfully on the page and in the mind. Ditto for the story itself.
The Lovely Bones’ Australian theatrical release date: in selected cinemas December 26, 2009 and nationally January 1, 2010.