Lovely Bones, The (2009): Peter Jackson’s Disappointing Version of Sebold’s Novel, Starring Saoirse Ronan

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Grade: B- (** out of *****)

Having made “The Lord of the Rings,” one of the most artistically acclaimed and commercially popular film series in history, Peter Jackson turns his attention to a relatively more intimate story, “The Lovely Bones,” based on Alice Sebold’s 2002 best selling novel. While applying to the book his singular vision, wizardry of special effects, and dream-like narrative should excite many viewers, it might also upset those expecting a more conventional small-scale human story.
Dense in texture, “Lovely Bones” is nonetheless dramatically flawed and only intermittently touching or relatable, due to Jackson’s determination to put his eccentric stamp on the cherished novel.  As such, it’s likely to divide critics and will not be as commercial as Paramount and exec producer Steven Spielberg might have wished for.
World-premiering as a Royal screening in the U.K., Paramount will release this DreamWorks production December 11 as a prestige film, based on its literary cachet and high-profile talent, both in front and behind the cameras.
As is well known, the story concerns Susie Salmon (splendidly played by Saoirse Ronan), a 14-year-old girl brutally murdered by her next-door neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), in suburban Pennsylvania. Refusing to let go (and simply be forgotten), she serves as a guardian angel, at once an insider and an outsider to the story, observing the effects of her death on each and every member of her family. 
While compressing the novel and necessarily omitting some characters, Jackson and his gifted team of writers have very much preserved the novel’s unique perspective, the fact that every event is seen from the subjective POV of the dead girl. Despite some visual excesses that prove distracting, the book’s central themes of love and loss, mourning and adjustment, are vividly conveyed.  Despite the grim subject, the film is also remarkable for not neglecting the book’s melancholy tone, and for including its more upbeat and cheerful elements, most evident in the first-person narration.  
It may be easier to say what “Lovely Bones” is not. The picture is not a realistic portrait of loss and mourning, and it’s not based on a linear conventional narrative, defined by dramatic continuity with a clear beginning, middle and end. And, since the murder occurs and and the killer is identified in the first sequence, it’s certainly not a thriller about child abuse and disappearance in the way that “Mystic River” or “Gone Baby Gone” were; in fact, the film doesn’t even depict the girl’s rape, only the aftermath.  Instead, blending different cinematic styles and relying on rich imagery, “Lovely Bones” unfolds as a surreal, dream-like meditation bearing the personal signature of its auteur-filmmaker on each and every frame. 
“Lovely Bones,” which is set in a typical American suburb, Norristown, Pennsylvania in the 1970s, is a tense and intense art film. As such, it can’t be compared to any other film about suburban life, family loss, or serial killer. The film can’t even be compared to “Heavenly Creature,” the 1994 film that put Jackson on the map (still my favorite work of his), which also deals with a young girl and a friendship that leads to irrational violence and murder.
The script, especially the voice-over narration, penned by Jackson’s vet collaborators, Fran Walsh (his companion) and Philippa Boyens, is consistently sharp, precise, and revelatory, grounding the story and characters in its specific context, even when Jackson the helmer indulges in fancy visual and sound effects.
Faithful to the novel, in the film, Susie dies at the very beginning.  As she says in the opening narration: “My name is Salmon, like the fish.  First name Susie.  I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” 
But before she gets killed, there’s a brilliant sequence that describes Susie’s infancy (“I remember being really small”). In brief, fast-paced images, Jackson depicts Susie as a baby, dotted upon by her father, Jack Salmon (Mark Wahlberg). Jack’s hobby is to build miniature ships, which he then stores in bottlesof various shapes and sizes. Early on, he instructs his daughter, “If you start something, you don’t give up till you finish it.” In a peculiar way, Susie applies that lesson to the bizarre journey upon which she embarks after her death.
Twelve years later, Susie, now 14, is given a camera and begins to shoot the landscape around her, their rose garden, the farm that she visits with her father. Her fantasy is to photograph wild life. The other wish, inspired by recollections of her eccentric and boozy Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) is to be kissed romantically. But, alas, neither fantasy gets fulfilled due to a life aborted.
Even so, Susie’s childhood is a happy one. “We weren’t those people, those unlucky people to whom bad things happen,” she intones from above. And, indeed, the worst thing that happens to the Salmon family is when younger brother Buckley stops breathing and she rushes him to the hospital and saves his life.
Once dead, Susie is placed in what could be described as an in-between space for the recently deceased, sort of a bridge between life and heaven. It’s in these sequences that Jackson and his production team employ their fertile imaginations and considerable crafts to create landscapes that shift forms and colors in a matter of seconds (and recalls numerous Hollywood fantasy films). Just note how lush wheat fields turns to soggy mud swamps, or how spring becomes autumn and then winter through the changing leaves of a single tree.
Susie does not (and can not) let her family go or forget her, stubbornly following them through the years. For their part, her family members, neighbors (especially her killer), and friends do not let her go either, continuing to see her, or her reflection, wherever they turn.
At first, her loving parents assume that their missing girl has been kidnapped, only to be told by detective Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli) that Susie’s knitted hat has been found alongside bloodied clothes within a cavity, buried deep in the ground.
Ferociously obsessed with finding Susie’s murderer, Jack goes to the extreme of locating all kinds of improbable men, even using old tax files, before zeroing in on Mr. Harvey, the strange, solitary guy next door. Jack cannot let go of Susie, and her traumatic death takes the heaviest toll on him, both physically and mentally. First, he is beaten for mistaking another girl (Clarissa) for his own Susie, making out in the cornfields. Later on, he suffers a heart attack and is sent to the hospital. In contrast, Abigail (Rachel Weisz) chooses another way of overcoming the loss: She abandons the family for several years and goes to work in a farm; in the book, desperately wanting to feel alive again, Abigail has an affair with the detective.
Younger son Buckley, who keeps seeing Susie, also moves on, failing to understand why his father cannot. However, most crucial of all to the tale is Lindsey (Rose McIver), for a number of reasons. Closer in age to Susie, Lindsey could become the next victim of Mr. Harvey, who’s constantly watching her, or the one to resolve the mystery by retrieving incriminating evidence against Harvey.  Lindsey is significant for another reason: She’s doing everything Susie would have done had she remained alive, including the experience of first romance.
Indeed, floating through town, Susie watches the handsome boy she had loved in life, Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie), who has now become friends with Ruth, a girl she had briefly met.  Just hours before she is killed, Susie gets a poetic note from Ray and an invitation for a date at the mall, which promises to include the desirable, much anticipated kiss.
The film’s creepiest character is Mr. Harvey, a seemingly ordinary and normal guy, who sticks out because he is single and does not mix with his neighbors. Keeping to himself, he busies himself building meticulous dollhouses. Mr. Harvey finally leaves the neighborhood for good after Lindsey breaks into his house and steals his diary, and his very final disappearance provides one of the movie’s most brilliant and haunting moments.
The narrative draws a series of parallels and contrasts between its human characters and physical landscapes. For example, father Jack and killer Harvey are both artists of sorts, hobbyists dedicated to their craft. If Jack constructs miniature ships, Harvey constructs miniature dollhouses, beautifully appointed with lights and toys. In a nearby field, Harvey has created an underground room filled with books and figurines for children like Susie to enjoy. Susie is curious like her father, and when Harvey asks her to come into his sheltered playground, she obliges.
The lush, golden, vast cornfields, beautifully photographed in long shots by Andrew Lesnie of girls walking back home from school, are contrasted with a muddy and mysterious sinkhole, where Harvey throws the safe that contains Susie’s body.
Like the book, the movie depicts the overcoming of loss as a long and complex process based on a two-way path. You could say that Susie not only watches passively but also encourages (and wills) the disintegration of her family, so that eventually each member can reach a new sense of balance and perhaps even grace. 
But, essentially, the movie is about love, different forms of love, of which the most significant (and perhaps excessive), is Jack’s affection for Susie, clearly his favorite daughter. When Susie notes, “Mr. Harvey didn’t understand how much a father could love his child,” her observation evokes sorrow and pity for the murderer, a lonely, estranged and alienated figure.
The most impressive element of “Lovely Bones” is not the visual design, but the informal voice-over narration, which is always candid and personal, occasionally even humorous. As noted, the film’s point of view is remarkable, because it belongs to a narrator who, while dead, is also the story’s major character. This tricky structural device has been seldom used in Hollywood movies, and it brings to mind William Holden’s character (first seen as a floating corpse in a pool) in Billy Wilder’s creepy and macabre “Sunset Boulevard.”  
As viewers, we become privy, sort of silent conspirators, to Susie’s memories, as well as to the thoughts and actions of all the people she observes. Omnipresent, Susie takes us from the past to the present, and back to the past, effortlessly bridging between various events and persona, while offering wry commentary on them.  
In Jackson’s overall conception, the actors are just one element of the rich and elaborate mise-en-scene. His narrative strategy, and the film’s composition of numerous brief scenes (some lasting only a second or two) preclude most of the ensemble from developing fully realized performances, though each actor has a few good moments, particularly Sarandon, who brings humor to her campy role, and Tucci as the murderer, whose physique and conduct are disclosed by Jackson gradually, in most intriguing ways.
The exceptions to this rule are two fine actresses. In the second half of the text, the gifted Rose McIver impresses as Lindsey, the bright, daring sister who takes matters into her hands in resolving the mystery and nailing Harvey.
Saoirse Ronan, the brilliant Irish child actress, already Oscar-nominated for “Atonement,” deserves a serious Oscar consideration, this time in the Best Actress league. Though not traditionally beautiful, she registers strongly with her alert eyes, vivid presence, and a wonderfully variegated voice. Quite remarkably, Ronan brings to life a complex character, a young girl who’s romantically naïve, intuitively wise, and open-minded, an ordinary teenager who ironically becomes extraordinary as a direct result of her traumatic death. 
It is therefore appropriate that the last words belong to Ronan: “My name is Suzie Salmon, like the fish. I was here for a moment and then I was gone. I wish you all a happy life.”

End Note

Greeted with negative reviews, the movie was a commercial failure.

Jack Salmon – Mark Wahlberg
Abigail Salmon – Rachel Weisz
Grandma Lynn – Susan Sarandon
George Harvey – Stanley Tucci
Len Fenerman – Michael Imperioli
Susie Salmon – Saoirse Ronan
Lindsey Salmon – Rose McIver
Buckley Salmon – Christian Ashdale
Ray Singh – Reece Ritchie
A Paramount release of a DreamWorks Pictures presentation in association with Film4 of a Wingnut Films production.
Produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Aimee Peyronnet.
Executive producers, Tessa Ross, Steven Spielberg, Ken Kamins, James Wilson.
Co-producers, Philippa Boyens, Anne Bruning, Marc Ashton.
Directed by Peter Jackson.
Screenplay, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, based on the novel by Alice Sebold.
Camera, Andrew Lesnie.
Editor, Jabez Olssen.
Music, Brian Eno.
Production designer, Naomi Shohan.
Ar directors, Chris Shriver, Jules Cook.
Set designers, Philip Thomas, Darryl Longstaffe, Barry Read, Christina Crawford, Miriam Barrard.
Set decorators, George DeTitta Jr., Meg Everist.
Costume designer, Nancy Steiner.
Sound, Hammond Peek; supervising sound editors, Brent Burge, Chris Ward; sound designers, Dave Whitehead, Christopher Boyes; re-recording mixers, Boyes, Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges.
Senior visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri.
Visual effects supervisor, Christian Rivers; digital visual effects, Weta Digital.
Stunt coordinator, Peter Bucossi.
Assistant director, Carolynne Cunningham.
Second unit director, Richard Bluck.
Casting, Victoria Burrows, Scot R. Boland, Avy Kaufman, Jina Jay, Liz Mullane.
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 135 Minutes