The Lovely Bones Review
When I first read about this upcoming film in Empire magazine about a year ago I was intrigued and it immediately went to the top of my “want to see” list. I had not read the book, but the whole concept of the film absolutely intrigued me. The fact that it was directed by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings and King Kong not withstanding) also intrigued me. It didn’t seem like the usual kind of fare that he would serve up and this only added to the anticipation for me.
Adapted from a best-selling novel, which I haven’t read but am just starting, the narrative focuses on 14 year old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). Susie is a girl on the cusp of womanhood in 1973 America. Times were different then – children were less mature and the spectre that a paedophile lurks on every street corner was non-existent. Susie makes the breakthrough of her first date with a boy, Ray Singh (Reece Richie), but whilst walking home on cloud nine and taking a short cut through a corn field she is abducted by neighbour George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). He takes her down into an underground bunker he has built, rapes her, and then kills her before storing her remains in a safe in his basement.
Salmon subsequently goes to a version of heaven, where she is able to look down on events below. She sees the subsequent disintegration of her family as they attempt to come to terms with her murder, and she realises that she is not an isolated victim of Harvey.
The reason I was so keen to see this film is the potential within the story for an incredibly moving meditation on the meaning and effect of death. As mentioned earlier, I have not read the book but the idea of a murdered child looking down from above on her family’s attempts to come to terms with events could be incredibly moving, if handled correctly. The film could have been a more intense version of Carousel, without the awful singing. It could have been unbearably emotional.
Sadly, though – something has gone awfully wrong somewhere with this adaptation. The whole film is quite simply so cold, and so manipulative that you can see every event coming from a mile off. Also, the whole central idea is so patently ridiculous that it destroys any sense of realism that may have existed. We are expected to believe that the local neighbourhood weirdo is able to construct a massive underground chamber in the middle of a cornfield, metres from the local school, and no-one would even notice. Furthermore, he will go to all this effort simply to entrap and murder a local child. This whole conceit quite simply defies belief. I am not sure if this is the way events unfold in the book – but the very fact that this is so ridiculous fatally undermines the whole tale before it even gets started. Yes, 1973 was a more naïve time – but even so this setup just beggars belief.
Once you get beyond this ridiculous setup things do not get any better. Instead of a slow, steady and believable study into how a family copes with extreme grief – we get a Sunday afternoon made-for-TV feel to the domestic events occurring on Earth. One parent simply decides to walk out and distance herself from the whole event, and the other goes mad with a baseball bat on an innocent passer-by just because he is in the vicinity of where Susie was murdered. Yes, this scene is a case of mistaken identity but it just seems (like the rest of this film) so far-fetched. Whereas Jackson could really have concentrated on a family breakdown, instead he chooses to concentrate on the CGI world that Susie finds herself in once she is dead.
Ah yes, the CGI. Susie’s heaven is constructed from the latest Computer techniques – and impressive as it is in terms of the actual effects it just does not fit in with the mood of the film. Jackson opts for swirly camera movements and backgrounds which morph and change as Susie moves through them. It just destroys any sense of place in her world. I keep mentioning opportunity in this film – but again the potential for a really moving environment for Susie to exist in is sacrificed at the altar of computer generated effects. At a time when you should be completely involved in the emotional aspects of the story, you are sitting there open-mouthed at the CGI landscapes. In a film like this, this just pulls the audience out of the story when they should be immersed.
The characterisation is also extremely poor in the film, although this is not the fault of the actors who all do their best with the material they are presented with. Characters take sudden action with little to no build up (the aforementioned baseball bat scene, leaving the family and abandoning the remaining children) robbing the viewer of any sense of the emotional turmoil that has caused the character to take such action. Susie’s story gradually turns from one of watching her family dissolve, into a romantic sub-plot that is simply of much less interest to the viewer. And when we come to the ending, well I haven’t seen so much schmaltz on a screen for a very long time.
But perhaps worst of all is the moral ambiguity present in the whole film. Now it is very difficult to elaborate on this point without spoiling the film dramatically – but suffice to say that for such a dark subject matter very simple easy solutions are offered and morally this puts the film on a very strange footing. I am aware that this paragraph is a little ambiguous but those who have seen the film will, I am sure, understand what I mean. It is probably enough to say that if you are expecting a clever, meaningful resolution to the story then you will be very disappointed.
It is actually very difficult to think of much I liked about this film. Some of the performances, considering the material, are pretty good – specifically Wahlberg as the Salmon Patriarch. Tucci is also very good in his role as the child-killer. But ultimately this is a dreadfully missed opportunity. There is very little emotional heft here, no dramatic power, and just an endless, almost cynical, attempt to tug your heart strings. The film is so manipulative it never achieves this goal and to be quite frank within half an hour I was bored senseless.