In adapting Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Jackson was able to capture the essence, mystery and scope of the source material, breathing life into each of its characters and injecting a thrilling pace to the events.
He pushed technical boundaries and succeeded in bringing the heart of the books to the screen. The adaptation of the Tolkien classic set a very high standard for Jackson, and this is one of his previous films which is brought to bare on The Lovely Bones.
The beautiful, suffocating teenage angst of Heavenly Creatures is the second, when I saw the trailer for The Lovely Bones with its enormous fleet of ships in bottles crashing through the glass as they smashed into the shore I thought here was a call back to the dizzying flights of fancy of Jackson’s 1994 film. Surely the novel’s themes of burgeoning, youthful love and unspeakable violence link the two films? I remembered how capably Jackson was able to engage us in the doomed real life story of Pauline and Juliet, how the tone of the film swung from ecstasy and annihilation and swept its audience along.
How was it that Jackson missed the mark with The Lovely Bones? The story is engaging and simple, its uniqueness belies its straightforward narrative and it should have been very easy for Jackson to bring the characters to life without resorting to what is essentially a patchwork of ill-judged tonal judders, bizarre characters who appear to have wandered in from a different film, a heroine whose pain and torment so keenly felt in the source material who is detached and whimsical on screen, and finally, and most surprisingly, sequences drowned in badly designed CGI.
There were moments of greatness in amongst the mess – the scene in which Susie ‘escapes’ her attacker and runs through her town which is rendered in bleak, dull tones, intercutting with the brightness of her father, played by Mark Wahlberg in his ‘I’m a TEACHER’ mode from The Happening, searching for her in the same streets. This is Jackson at his best, giving us a cinematic and visually stunning evocation of life and death. Saoirse Ronan plays Susie very well, with enough youthful naivety to play dutifully on the heartstrings. If only she remained, as in the book, the eye of the storm.
Rachel Weisz as Susie’s mother fares less better, but only because she is reduced to hysterics and placation, leaving the film half way through and then returning at the end carrying with her exactly zero emotional resonance. Susan Sarandon is initially a fun character, but what she is given to do is essentially be a comedy grandmother in a brief and alarmingly incongruous slapstick montage.
Stanley Tucci is up for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and it is true that he is among the film’s very few shining stars, but his sleazy performance veers wildly between cliche and terror with no anchor keeping him grounded in any kind of reality. Another example of Jackson’s visual inventiveness is the use of Tucci’s character’s obsession with building doll’s houses, and the shots of him peering King Kong like into the tiny windows of the tiny houses are diverting but ultimately lead nowhere.
While the novel is clear in its intent and the emotional heart is Susie’s pining for her lost life, and while the characters go through the motions of loss and grief, the limbo state Susie spends most of the film in, both literally and emotionally, has no depth and while I felt every pang of her heart in the novel what this film does is reduce Susie to a bystander in her own story. The deluge of CG landscape is less dreamlike and more of a computer animated showreel, and I breathed a sigh of relief when the film moved to real, tangible locations.
Peter Jackson has given us many wonderful films, and is part of a very talented production team, I will watch every film the man puts out but I will never suffer The Lovely Bones again. The potential of this film to be a powerful study of life after death combined with a suspenseful search for Susie’s killer should have been a haunting addition to Jackson’s filmography, instead we have a mismatched narrative and characters running through a series of emotional and dramatic checklists, swimming in a sea of CG, with no land in sight.