Monday, January 18, 2010

Movie Review: The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones *** ½
Directed by:
Peter Jackson.
Written By: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson based on the novel by Alice Sebold.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Susie Salmon), Mark Wahlberg (Jack Salmon), Rachel Weisz (Abigail Salmon), Stanley Tucci (George Harvey), Susan Sarandon (Grandma Lynn), Rose McIver (Lindsey Salmon), Nikki SooHoo (Holly), Michael Imperioli (Len Fenerman), Reece Ritchie (Ray Singh), Carolyn Dando (Ruth).

To viewers who have only become familiar with director Peter Jackson in the last decade, The Lovely Bones will seem like a departure. This was the man after all who directed The Lord of the Rings movies and King Kong, and this movie is the story of a 14 year old girl who is murdered, and then watches her family and her killer from her perch somewhere between earth and heaven. The world she inhabits can be a dream world, but it can also be a nightmare. But for viewers who have followed Jackson’s career for a long time, they will know that this is a return of sorts to the same type of material as his 1994 breakthrough film Heavenly Creatures (which also introduced the world to the talents of Melanie Lynsky and Kate Winslet). That film was about the abnormally close relationship between two teenage girls that veered off into fantasy, and eventually lead them to murder. Jackson’s new film has the same sort of feeling as that one did.

The Lovely Bones take place in a suburb town in 1970s Pennsylvania. The first 20 minutes or so sets up the Salmon family. Father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) is a loving man, and an accountant, and his wife Abigail is a stay at home mother who worries about her kids. The eldest daughter is Susie (Saorise Ronan), who has a crush on a boy, and is going through the early stages of adolescence. She has two siblings, most notably younger sister Lindsay (Rose McIver). Things seem to be going well in their family. Then one day walking home from school through the corn field, Susie is approached my Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci), her neighbor from down the street. He has something he wants to show her, and although initially reluctant, she follows him down into an underground bunker. She is never seen alive again. The days turn into weeks, turn into months, turn into years, and Susie’s body is never found. Jack throws himself into the investigation, bugging the police constantly with his new theories. Abigail is a wreck who eventually cannot take the pressure anymore. Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) comes to help out, but she has spent her life avoiding this kind of responsibility. Lindsay is also drawn into the case, and starts to notice the creepy Mr. Harvey looking at her.

Jackson has crafted the film with the same sort of attention to detail that has marked all of his work. The cinematography by Andrew Lesnie is colorful and brilliant – whether it’s evoking a dream, a nightmare or reality, the film is amazing to look at. This is aided by the pitch perfect art direction and costume design that let you know you are in the 1970s without drilling it into your dead or mocking. The sound design, highlighted by Brian Eno’s emotional, evocative score, and some incredibly tense moments (that floorboard creaking is one of the most memorable sounds of the year) is also top notch. The special effects are used to enhance the story, not replace it. In short, this is another great directorial achievement for Jackson.

The film is anchored – given a real heart – by two of the best performances of the year. Saorise Ronan has a nearly impossible role, and plays it brilliantly. Surrounded by special effects for most of her performance, she is still able to make a complete, realistic character out of Susie. In the two years since her Oscar nominated turn in Atonement, Ronan has simply gotten better. The other great performance is by Tucci as the child murderer Harvey. A lot of credit has to go to the make-up and costume department, who make Tucci look creepier than I have ever seen him, but this is just the surface of his performance. He transforms his voice into a lower, guttural sounding one, where you can tell something is not quite right about this guy, but cannot place your finger on it.

The problem with the film is in the other characters and performances – mainly because their roles are underwritten (just as they were in the Alice Sebold novel upon which the film is based). Mark Wahlberg is probably most successful – making his obsession equal parts grief, love, anger and frustration. Newcomer Rose McIver is also wonderful as Lindsay – with her wide open, innocent face; she does precisely what is required of her. Less successful is Rachel Weisz, who once again is given little to do other than cry her way through the movie. She’s a good crier to be sure, but she needed something else to give her performance weight. Susan Sarandon is a hoot as Grandma Lynn, but it’s a one note performance, and the type of role that Sarandon seems to play all too often lately – someone give her a great role again already!

This is a problem for the movie as a whole. It is not as strongly written as it should have been. Alice Sebold’s novel, despite being a huge bestseller, had some major flaws in it, and the film does little to correct these. The story takes some weird turns that don’t feel genuine, and many characters are simply glossed over. It keeps the film from becoming the true great film it should be. But overall, The Lovely Bones is one of the more interesting films of the year – gorgeous and involving in equal measure. It deserves a lot more praise that it has been receiving so far.

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