Thursday, 11 March 2010

The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009) Review

If you're going to have expectations for a movie, it's probably best to set them towards the lower end of the spectrum. Quite often our overall judgement can be misguided by the preconceptions we went in with, and all film fans can agree that it's better to be pleasantly surprised than bitterly disappointed. Never is this more true than in the case of an adaptation. So, we come to The Lovely Bones. Based on Alice Sebold's 2002 novel of the same name, it was always going to be a challenge to fit all the elements of this emotionally complex 323 page novel into a two hour film. Combining studies of the supernatural, a family torn apart by loss, the psychology of a serial killer and a police investigation is not something that will sit well for the younger members of the audience that Peter Jackson has toned his vision down for. So, it's with some disappointment that I have to report that Jackson only really succeeds in two of these categories. But when he gets it right, he really, really gets it right.

The first half an hour of the film is masterpiece material. The narration from dead girl Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) sets the tone for the rest of the film and stays loyal to the book. She takes us on a whirlwind tour of her life as it was - her playful relationship with boozy grandmother (Susan Sarandon) and the crush she has on British senior Ray (Reece Ritchie). The evenings spent with her father working on model ships and the underdeveloped but significant ties to her mother and siblings. It's perhaps too much of a whirlwind, sketching a family rather than exploring it, but as exposition, it works a treat. Things really get good when Susie encounters Mr Harvey (Stanley Tucci, earning that OSCAR nod) on the way home from school and he tempts her into the underground murder den he has built (in a remarkably fast time). The scene that unfolds here is the most tense of the whole film...never has the opening of a coke bottle carried so much tension. It's also here that Tucci comes into his own, displaying why he is one of the most underrated actors of his generation. The way he shuffles uneasily around the den, displaying little ticks, always thinking about what to say next is wonderfully unnerving. He's plotting her death and at the same time trying to impress her. It's a brilliantly subtle but terrifying performance that remains the high point throughout the whole film. Susie eventually tries to escape her captor, but fails. The sequence that follows is a sort of in-between nightmare that hurtles Susie through the eerie, empty streets of her home town. The nightmare ends in a bathroom scene that pushes the boundaries of the 12A rating. Harking back to Jackson's horror roots, Susie treads through a bloody bathroom with Mr Harvey soaking in the centre. The scene escalates in the most terrifying way leaving the audience shocked, gripping their seats. It's the best scene Jackson has directed for the last decade. And then it all loses its way a bit.

Of course, what follows will instantly divide audiences depending on your belief of the afterlife. It's the one thing we have no idea about, and certainly no clue to what it would look like, if it does exist. This gives Jackson complete creative control, allowing for some visually stunning and emotionally powerful sequences (the crashing of ships) and some completely redundant ones (a cringeworthy fasion/photo-shoot sequence). Suspend your disbelief though and you'll be rewarded with a deep, gorgeous setting unlike anything else you've seen before. It's one of two aspects that Jackson gets just right.

The second part is the serial killer study. Of course, this is mostly down to the aforementioned performance by Tucci, but it's also down to the script. Mr Harvey doesn't really get a lot to say and some of scariest scenes are the ones with him just sat in a chair, contemplating his crimes. The script knows exactly which buttons to press when it comes to his character and his development is the axis of the film. In fact, calling him a supporting actor hardly seems fair, given how much screen time he has.

Which leads to one of the biggest problems of the film. With so much emphasis placed on the afterlife Susie finds herself in and the man who put her there, precious little time is actually spent with the family. Their grief seems almost non-existent. There are a few scenes of Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz) crying, but nothing that actually constitutes any development. Most of the scenes based around the family deal with Jack investigating the case on his own and sister Lindsay (Rose McIver) becoming suspicious of Mr Harvey. It's an opportunity wasted. Abigail still leaves in the final third of the film, but her infidelity (a powerful emotional blow in the book) is disregarded here and she instead leaves when Jack's investigations become too much to handle. Her replacement? Susan Sarandon, in a comic relief musical montage. Gritty drama this is not.

The other problem is the investigation itself. There are a few scenes of questioning and a crime scene here and there, but any sign of an actual investigation is missing from the film. It's no wonder that Jack takes matters into his own hands, such is the apparent lack of interest from every officer involved. It's an element that would have bogged the film down had it been too much of a focus, but it still feels like an opportunity missed.

All of this criticism makes the film sound bad, but it's really not. It's an inventive, brilliantly directed and photographed film, with some stunning performances and a great soundtrack from Brian Eno. On a cinematic level it's an achievement worthy of attention and a re-watch will surely uncover even more depth. But it's a film that could have done more with such brilliant source material. Had the family drama and police procedure been as developed as the other elements of the movie, it could have been a masterpiece. But a few too many of the books elements are fiddled with or not tackled at all. It's actually a film that could have benefitted from an extra half hour on the running time.

So, newcomers to the universe of The Lovely Bones are in for a flawed treat, fans of the book are in for a disappointing but solid drama/thriller. But, if you set your expectations low, you might be very, very pleasantly surprised.


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