Movies: The Lovely Bones * *
Even before it was finished, the Hollywood buzzards were circling Alice Sebold's 2002 novel The Lovely Bones with a view to buying the film rights.
I'm not entirely sure why, however, because her story about a murdered girl who watches from heaven with only mild dismay as her family copes with the terrible loss and her killer looks like getting away with it was always going to be tough to adapt. Peter Jackson became involved in the project in 2006, and helped pull together this screenplay before deciding to direct it himself.
At least he got his casting right: now 15, Saoirse Ronan is maturing into a very fine screen actress, and is excellent as Suzie Salmon, the film's narrator. Suzie is a 14-year-old high school girl from a small town in rural Pennsylvania. It's 1973, and she has high hopes of becoming a photographer when she leaves school, but fate has altogether darker plans in store. Suzie lives with her loving parents and two younger siblings in an unremarkable suburban street. She's a normal, dreamy, teenage girl, with a wandering mind and a terrible crush on a seemingly unattainable older boy.
For the first half hour of The Lovely Bones, we watch her go about her teenage business with an increasingly sinking feeling, because we know that something very bad is going to happen (she's told us), and we even know who's going to do it. The Salmons' neighbour, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), is a bland, forgettable and, on the face of it, entirely unremarkable man. He builds dolls' houses, and keeps pretty much to himself, but he's also a compulsive and meticulous killer, who's been planning to attack Suzie for months.
George builds a kind of underground cabin in a field near their houses, and decorates it with candles and other girlish things in order to entice Suzie. One afternoon, on her way back from school, she succumbs, and once he's got her out of sight he rapes, kills and dismembers her.
Most of this we do not see and when Suzie comes to, she finds herself invisible to her friends and parents, then migrates to a kind of heaven. In fact it's more a sort of purgatory, a place of empty sunlit fields and desolate shores where she meets other girls who seem too young to have died of natural causes. And from this bucolic perch, Suzie watches her family come asunder down below.
Suzie's parents, Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz), are naturally devastated by their loss.
And while Jack becomes obsessed with the police investigation, Abigail retreats from the world and eventually runs away from her own family. George Harvey, meanwhile, is happily going about his business, and when he begins drawing up new and elaborate plans, Suzie worries that he might be about to target her sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver).
For its first half hour or so, The Lovely Bones is nicely constructed and entirely gripping. As Alfred Hitchcock proved time and again, knowing something bad is going to happen makes for compelling viewing, and Suzie's touching innocence makes what's coming all the more disturbing. However, the film's problems start once she heads towards paradise.
The film's garish CGI purgatory looks like an interior decorator's interpretation of the works of Salvador Dali: it's so bright it's sometimes hard to look at, and seems to bear absolutely no relation to the all-too-believable psychodrama unfolding below. In fact, the heavenly segments feel like a jolt into another film entirely, and tend to undermine the story's ever more feeble thrillerish tone.
The likes of Wahlberg and Weisz are not well-served by the script, and Susan Sarandon's quirky grandmother is introduced with some fanfare but never developed at all. For more than two hours, the film blunders on trying and failing to unite its story of crime and loss with its garish fantasy afterworld. And only Ronan's Suzie and Tucci's blandly demented killer truly manage to engage.