When it was first announced that Peter Jackson, the Oscar-winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, former splatter master and all-round King of Geeks, was lined up to direct an adaptation of Alice Sebold's much-loved bestseller The Lovely Bones, there was a lot of speculation about whether the man who made a self-indulgent mega-budget remake of King Kong was exactly the right person to bring the story of murdered teenager Susie Salmon to the big screen.
It was never meant to be that way. Initially touted by producers as a small, low-budget production (estimated budget: $15million) with Ratcatcher's Lynne Ramsay attached to direct, the rights were lost when backers Film4 folded in 2002. Pretty gutting for all concerned - Film4 first acquired The Lovely Bones in 2000 when it was still an unfinished manuscript. No one had a clue the book would eventually turn into a minor literary phenomenon. Inevitably, a year later the project landed on the desk of Steven Spielberg (movie fact: 87% of all films in Hollywood end up on the desk of Steven Spielberg.) The Jaws director, who'd already made his own ghost movie with 1987's romantic drama Always, passed on the idea, allowing Peter Jackson and his own Wingnut Productions to acquire the rights and eventually the develop the script. Shooting finally commenced in 2007, although after years in development hell the budget had escalated to $65million, effectively turning a small-scale production into a major studio picture.
In actual fact, Jackson already had form with this kind of material. To this day many still regard his low-key 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures (starring newcomer Kate Winslet) as his finest non-Hobbit related moment. In that film, based on a shocking true story, the increasingly deranged fantasies of two teenage girls eventually lead them to commit murder in 1950s New Zealand. Critically acclaimed around the world upon its release, Heavenly Creatures won the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival, earned Jackson a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the Academy Awards, and secured his transition from Brain Dead gore hound to bona fide serious film-maker. In other words, it was a goodie. Sadly, although thematically in similar territory as Jackson's earlier film, The Lovely Bones isn't quite in the same league and seems destined to take its place as a minor work in the Kiwi's filmography .
Saoirse Ronan, prodigal child actress du jour following her creepy turn in Atonement, plays Susie Salmon, a 14-year old teenager in 1970s Pennsylvania who is murdered by her next door neighbour (Stanley Tucci in full-on "sinister paedo" mode.) But as her physical body passes away, and her remains locked in a corner of her killer's basement, Susie's spirit continues to live on the "in-between", her own personal version of heaven, a fantastical landscape made up of giant bottled ships and neverending corn fields. It's from this discreet, supernatural distance that Susie observes her family not only deal with their loss, but piece together the mystery of her death.
The film is a weird hybrid of suspense-fuelled thriller and sentimental family melodrama with a whole bunch of other New Age crud about life after death thrown in for good measure. When it's in thriller mode, The Lovely Bones is almost ruthlessly efficient, Jackson clearly in his element. Take, for instance, the sequence in the final act when Suzie's sister plays detective and, convinced of her neighbour's guilt, breaks into his house and hunts for evidence. It's an expertly-staged set-piece of nail-biting tension. Jackson really knows how to do "impending doom" better than any other mainstream director today, which means that every creak, every shadow, every break in the soundtrack - it all matters. Genuine edge-of-the-seat stuff, oddly reminiscent of the build-up in the Mines of Moria sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring although obviously on a much smaller scale. And there's just about enough of this good stuff throughout the movie to warrant the price of admission. However, despite the effectiveness of individual scenes, it never truly resonates as a whole and that's disappointing. In his previous films, whether it be zombie horror or fantasy epic, Jackson never did things in halves. The Lovely Bones, on the hand, is split straight down the middle. In other words, when the film's depicting events in the real world then it's good, when it's concentrating on the afterlife, well, that's another thing entirely.
The problem lies with the way he pitches the "heaven" sequences. Strongly reminiscent of the awful Robin Williams weepy What Dreams May Come, Jackson goes crazy with the green screen, coming up with something that's part-Lewis Carroll, part-Salvador Dali but much less interesting. In truth, these moments are actually a little boring, and not even that spectacular. Indeed, some of the CG looks pretty ropey. It's as if Jackson's trying to take basic human emotions and visualise them on an epic, almost phantasmic canvas. And it simply doesn't work, mainly because the film doesn't need them. In a novel, you can get away with long, internalised descriptions but in a commercial, story-driven movie, the narrative has to keep pushing forward or else the audience will lose interest and the movie won't play. Susie's voiceover is effective and tells you everything you need to know about her own particular afterlife, which means the literal depiction of heaven, if indeed that's what it is, is an entirely unnecessary distraction. And besides, the film never makes it entirely clear what impact Susie's afterlife is having on the real world. Perhaps it would have been a braver move to ditch the heaven stuff entirely and, like the book, simply let Suzie tell her story in words. (Apparently, when the movie's US release date switched from March to December 2009, Jackson took the opportunity to shoot some additional footage in order to flesh out these scenes. Big mistake - they needed less, not more.)
In addition to occasional CG wobbles, the film's other technical specs are also slightly all over the place. After investing so much time and money in wonderful production and costume design, both of which brilliantly evoke the small-town American dream of the 1970s, the digital cinematography lets everything down by going in and out of focus, apparently randomly, or appearing very blurry in some ill-advised extreme close-ups. The overall effect is jarring and proves that Jackon's still finding his feet when it comes to the digital video revolution. Apparently controlling your very own visual effects empire is still no guarantee of visual panache. (Seriously, some of the shots look like Inland Empire.)
Despite all this, the cast are great. As the movie's central focus, Saoirse Ronan nicely captures the hope of a teenage girl moving into adulthood, her Susie carrying just the right amount of wisdom and naivety to convey the promise a life not quite lived. And don't blame Ronan if, when invited into an isolated bunker in the middle of an empty field by a suspicious man in his late-40s, Suzie seems a little easily seduced. That's Jackson's fault. The film needed to work harder to make her abduction more convincing.
Successfully moving on from the double-whammy of shit and misery that was The Happening and Max Payne, Mark Wahlberg finds his feet here as a man whose obsession with catching his daughter's killer ends up driving his family apart. He nicely underplays throughout and it's a slight return to form for an actor who was, prior to this, on the verge of alienating his audience. Susan Sarandon has little more than a cameo, in all honesty, but she makes the most of it, getting the movie's only real laughs as Susie's eccentric, alcoholic grandmother. And Rachel Weisz comes and goes, literally in fact, as the family's oft-absent mother.
The real star of the movie, however, is Stanley Tucci. Everything you've heard about his performance is true. As a lonely man consumed by sinister desires, he dominates every scene in a charismatic, evil turn that threatens to veer into panto villain territory but stays just about restrained enough to be convincing. It's telling that despite being touted as an early awards contender, the only Academy Award nomination The Lovely Bones actually received in the end was Best Supporting Actor for Stanley Tucci. And if it wasn't for Christopher Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, he'd win it, too. (Interestingly, Tucci's wife had tried to convince her husband not to take the role on the basis that it was too harrowing.)
But ultimately this is Peter Jackson's film and he has to carry the can. He's taken a lot of flak for softening Sebold's novel, and shying away from some of the more distasteful elements of the story (you won't find any suggestion of Susie's rape in the movie.) Jackson's defended his adaptation by claiming that film is a visual medium and you don't need to see a lot of that stuff directly in order to get a sense of it. He's right, of course, and the criticisms are, for the most part, unfair. It's shame he doesn't follow his own advice when it comes to the supernatural sequences. In that respect, The Lovely Bones is an ambitious and admirable failure.