INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Times FEBRUARY 19, 2010 - by Kate Muir
THE LOVELY BONES
Under the hammy direction of Peter Jackson The Lovely Bones has lost its poetic bone structure. What was a complex, quirky novel has been turned into a movie mishmash of The Lord Of The Rings and High School Musical, with a serial killer thrown in. That might be a winning combination for a comedy, but this film is tragic in execution and subject. In America it played so badly to adult audiences that the advertising campaign was reconfigured to woo teenagers.
Yet there are some magnificent performances, particularly that of Saoirse Ronan. Fresh from her role in Atonement, the Irish actress plays Susie Salmon, a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl raped and murdered in an underground den by a next door neighbour in suburban Pennsylvania. Ronan is a natural, and shows us Susie's innocence peeling away layer by layer. From the afterlife, as a very solid ghost, Susie retells her family's experiences before and after the crime: half post mortem, half detective story.
Alice Sebold's book sold more than a million copies and is toothsome material, but in Jackson's Tolkien-tainted hands what should have been an intimate feminine portrait becomes an epic landscape. Susie's wanderings in the "in-between" (a sort of scenic departure lounge for Heaven) are dealt with lightly in the book, but Jackson has conveniently relocated Heaven to his native New Zealand, and the shots of shiny lakes and mountains look like offcuts from Middle Earth.
As you know, Heaven is tricky to get just right on camera, and Jackson acknowledged this, saying he wanted to film it as "somehow ethereal and emotional, but it can't be hokey". On the contrary, if there is an Oscar for computer-generated hokey Jackson's so in the running, with electric-green leaves that fly off trees and become yellow birds, cardboard full moons, full-sized ships in bottles smashing on rocks and cornfields romping with girls in Laura Ashley dresses.
This silliness clashes irritatingly with the bloody violence of the murder: indeed the leaps from gruesome to fey sometimes drew laughter from the audience. The best scenes in The Lovely Bones are not the fantasy but the East Coast cornfields and claustrophobic domestic life in the clapboard suburbs of the '70s. For that retro feel, the cinematographer Andrew Lesnie studied Andrew Wyeth paintings, and he uses curious Kodachrome colouring from faded photos, all greenish skies and burnt orange furniture in Susie's family home. Plus the set designers worked hard to source a wide selection of really bad '70s patterned wallpapers, tchotchkes and carefully preserved editions of Seventeen magazine.
The ethos is psychedelic, as is the score - perhaps inevitably - by Brian Eno. I didn't realise the cack hand of Eno was upon the film until afterwards, but I knew the music was wrong, somehow, when the appearance of the knitted hat worn by the murdered Susie was clumsily pre-signalled by jingle bells and chords of doom.
The actors battle courageously against the production. Susan Sarandon rocks in with a cameo as a chain-smoking, whisky-drinking, foxy grandmother with big hair. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz put in solid performances as the father and mother suffering the fall-out after the murder. Stanley Tucci's portrayal of the serial killer is all the more impressively controlling and twitchy if you've just seen him play the cuddly foodie husband of Julia Child in Julie & Julia. The killer builds doll's houses, and makes equally intricate designs for the hideouts where he plans to kill more doll-like girls, carefully organising his duct tape, saws and hammers like any DIY enthusiast. The result is stomach-churning.
It's important that these inexplicably popular themes - the missing girl, the serial killer, the sadistic pervert with a home-made dungeon - are handled well on screen, as we watch their grisly replay in newspaper stories about Madeleine McCann and Josef Fritzl. Yet you wonder uneasily if this dwelling on the creep and his meticulous clean-up - it's almost "Tide: the first choice for serial killers!" - allows the film to lose the redeeming power of the dead girl's point of view.
I read after the screening that Lynne Ramsay, the director of the weird and wonderful Morvern Callar, was lined up to make this film before the deal fell through. Shame. High on CGI, Jackson has lost any sense of the spiritual.