Periods of The Lovely Bones are like stumbling into Peter Jackson’s narcotic-tinged realisation of a fourth Lord Of The Rings film. With her pale, narrow features and wide eyes, Saoirse Ronan looks distinctly elven, flitting about a CGI-dominated landscape that resembles a cross between Narnia and a Pink Floyd album cover. The difference is, while staring into a pool of impossibly shimmering water, we do not see wizards or orcs, but Mark Wahlberg and his 70s hair.
For his first full-length feature since King Kong, Jackson has chosen to adapt Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel, The Lovely Bones.
The film revolves around Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a 14-year-old girl murdered by her neighbour, who watches from the afterlife as her family struggle to deal with their loss. Her pseudo-heaven is an ever-changing slideshow of Weta Digital concept art, complete with a giant floating rainbow ball and gazebos. For the first ten minutes it’s a stunning vista, but as the general pointlessness of Susie’s voyeurism begins to grate, the lustre fades.
Murdering children is a distinctly dark subject matter and Jackson seems wary of his movie’s morbid tendencies. In a misguided attempt to dissipate any growing tension, he frequently piles on ill-fitting tonal shifts. In an early scene, the Salmon family’s youngest son lies suffocating on a freshly cut suburban lawn. Instead of attaching some plodding maudlin piano or fierce strings, Jackson opts for an upbeat jive that clashes horribly with the action.
Later on, Susan Sarandon’s kooky alcoholic grandma arrives to hold together the crumbling family unit. Her short montage of poor housekeeping and dodgy parenting would be equally at home in Meet The Fockers. The director’s incessant attempts to lighten the mood result in a blotchy film that frequently undercuts its most impressive passages.
This leaves an immense burden on the actors and, thankfully, the core family members Susie leaves behind do an excellent job of salvaging the picture. Mark Wahlberg puts in an accomplished turn as the destitute father, becoming increasingly desperate as the cops fail to locate his daughter’s killer. Rachel Weisz is given a lot less to work with, but crafts a believably distraught mother, weighed down by her husband’s inability to move on.
An honourable mention also goes to Rose McIver as Susie’s younger sister. She becomes more and more suspicious of the nerdy George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) and drives the latter parts of the real-world narrative to a pleasing climax. It’s no surprise that Rosie fixes on George as the likely killer, with his unconvincing comb-over and thick spectacles, he’s dressed in the classic Hollywood nutter outfit. Tucci slips into this costume with ease and adds just enough creepiness to a role that is mostly cliché.
While all this enticing family drama is unfolding, we frequently cut back to heaven, where Susie complains in her unconvincing American accent and babbles about the need to forget her corporeal existence. We spend an inexorably large amount of time in this limbo, with no narrative drive to keep us interested.
The heaven-based scenes are mostly lifeless and Saoirse Ronan tries far too hard to pump some weight into these lengthy dull passages. Even the imaginative background graphics pale in comparison to the rich pastel colours Jackson regular Andrew Lesnie pulls from the 1970s backdrop.
It all ends in a wholly unconvincing fashion. A fatally underdeveloped sub-plot returns in the final minutes as a last gasp attempt to make us care about the plight of the dead Susie. After a genuinely thrilling scene of horror-film tension, the travails of the family look like they are building to a satisfying conclusion but, once again, the film betrays all of its good work in a contrived final scene.
The Lovely Bones would benefit greatly from more emphasis on the Salmon family. The heaven-based sections might be central to the film’s conceit, but add little more than a bucket of jarring visual popcorn which empties before the credits roll.
The Lovely Bones is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.