Movie Review: The Lovely Bones (2009)


Saoirse Ronan in The Lovely Bones
Photo: Paramount Pictures

As mud flies with every smashing turn of a battered safe pushed to its final resting place, I came to realize Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Boneswas the very best film he could make out of Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel. This, though, doesn’t mean he ended up with a fantastic film. In fact The Lovely Bones is a perfectly fine film that never stalls and truly shines inside its technical efficiency, but it seems to lack something of a human element, muting the overall result. I can’t blame this on Jackson or anyone involved; I never thought this was a book that could perfectly translate to the big screen. As a result I can’t imagine anyone being entirely disappointed as much as you will walk away plainly amused and slightly entertained.

Murdered at the age of 14, The Lovely Bones is told from the perspective of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan). Her voice guides us through much of the film as we watch and react to her family, friends and even her killer in the wake of her demise. Such grim material would seem to make for an outright disturbing film, but much like the novel, Jackson’s story definitely has its gruesome moments, but the idea of quelling revenge and letting go is at the center of this tale.

Where the film falls short is that even in its most startling moments we are never caught off guard, or find ourselves caught up in tension. There’s no knockout blow to Jackson’s film, but there is a moment about 45 minutes in where it got me thinking.

After a close encounter with the law, Susie’s killer tosses her charm bracelet into an anonymous body of water, and all but one charm is saved from the depths. While this worldly part of Susie is slowly drowning, there is still a small piece keeping her spirit alive. As the film played on and a variety of spiritual occurrences played out I kept coming back to this moment and the visible effect it had on the story and where it took Susie on her journey in the visual extravaganza described only as the “in between.”

One of the earliest questions regarding Jackson’s take on this film, following the spectacular effects employed for his Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, was just how he would envision Susie’s existence between life on Earth and Heaven. I can’t say his vision is much of a surprise, but it is spectacular as a collage of colors and items representative of Susie’s time on Earth collide with new elements guiding her on the proper path to letting go and allowing those she left the ability to heal.

Giant waterfalls, vast expanses of golden fields, changing environments and crashing impossible bottles are just part of this spiritual world. Each holds a particular significance and speaks to the attention to detail Jackson took in an effort to get things right. However, much like the recent adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, visuals aren’t what make up the weight of this story, it’s the emotional connections Susie shares with those she left behind and what happens on both sides as those connections are severed.

The performance of Saoirse Ronan as Susie is solid, and it’s nice to finally have a 14-year-old character played by an actor of the proper age. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz play Susie’s parents and both are better suited for the roles than I expected, although Wahlberg really doesn’t seem to bring anything more to this role than he brought to The Happening. Perhaps if he isn’t playing a tough guy caricature the role just isn’t for him.

Perhaps most surprising was Jackson’s treatment of Susan Sarandon as Grandma Lynn. This was the most outrageous character in the novel and where Jackson could have gone hog wild with an actress that has proven time and again she’s up for anything. Either he tried and it just doesn’t work or they were never able to get it right because it results in a montage of tame silliness that really doesn’t add anything to the story or the character. Disappointing to say the least.

The one true highlight outside of the effects is Stanley Tucci as the creepy George Harvey. Tucci was excellent casting and he falls into the role with particular menace, but it’s not a role so dominating that it manages to completely turn the film into something above par. Instead it just works within the environment created and sorts itself out with everything else.

Overall, The Lovely Bones works, but it didn’t do much to move me one way or another. I enjoyed the novel on such a level perhaps the filmed adaptation needed to work overtime emotionally to truly hit me, because it never did. I respect the filmmaking at its core, but there isn’t enough here to say this one achieves anything spectacular.