D: Peter Jackson. DP: Andrew Lesnie. W: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Jackson. Starring: Saorise Ronan/Mark Wahlberg/Rahcel Weisz/Susan Sarandon/Stanley Tucci/Rose McIver/Michael Imperioli/Reece Ritchie/Carolyn Dando/Nikki SooHoo/Christian Thomas Ashdale. (NOTE: Based on the 2002 novel by Alice Sebould.)
One of the most highly anticipated film adaptations of this season has not only arrived, but in most aspects completely missed its mark. Is this what is to be expected for the rest of cinema’s richest season?
Alice Sebould’s sophomore novel, following her own rape memoir book Lucky (1999), The Lovely Bones starts with a jolt as the reader is immediately told two basic things. A girl’s name and the date of her rape/murder. The same opening happens in Jackson’s film adaptation, yet somehow the voice over of these basic things does not carry as much weight. And Jackson’s reliance on voice over, a device that is necessary for this film, actually makes the story seem somehow more pseudo and dreamy rather than gut-wrenchingly existential.
Providing this voice over is Susie Salmon (Ronan) who tells her tale from her afterlife or ‘imbetween’ as her brother Buckwell (Ashdale) calls it. Ronan is the best of the bunch here providing enough temporal innocence to cover Susie’s youth while also establishing that her personality would not lead her astray. McIver holds her own as well as Ronan’s sister Lindsay, but suffers as their relationship is not established prior to Ronan’s death.
A death that sparked many a debate starting with Jackson’s decision to not shoot an actual murder/rape scene. This decision of course allowed The Lovely Bones to be given a PG-13 rating and garner a larger audience. But at the same time unearths questions of violence and its role in storytelling. As the violence and violation Ronan’s character experiences establishes so much of her journey it would be natural to expect it to be part of the film. However, on the other hand, these acts are never seen, heard or even completely learned about by her family or community. Such that the omission of violence puts the film in the opposite point of view and emphasizes the unknown. Regardless of one’s preference Jackson’s decision to leave out so much of the violence, there is hardly more than a yank down stairs, in this instance detracts from the dramatic punch of the film. Because of its other faults, this decision plays against Jackson’s film and not only begs questions about the use of violence onscreen, but also if this was the right project for the director.
Jackson rounds out The Lovely Bones with a heavy focus on Ronan’s relationships with her parents, especially with her father Jack (Wahlberg). Wahlberg obviously tries his hardest, but is nothing but straight edged and predictable as Jack. And as the film progresses his cop antics read more like acting confusion rather than a father genuinely unraveling at the loss of a child. Weisz’s Abigail unravels even less as her relationship with Ronan is hardly established so that even bringing crazy mother in law Grandma Lynn (Sarandon) reads more like a gag than an emotional relief. (Incidentally, Wahlberg apparently provided cast relief on this set as Ryan Gosling pulled out as Jack three days before shooting began sighting creative differences. Which begs a multitude of creative questions, so discuss!)
But what Jackson does do right here is capturing the color and style of the American 1970s while also exploring the solitude and plotting of Ronan’s murderer. Tucci’s George Harvey holds a quiet malevolence about him that exudes danger despite his harmless cardiganed veneer. His calculations and coverings are precise with Tucci giving himself a twang in his voice just as off kilter as what satiates his inhumane impulses. Tucci is clearly Lesnie’s richest subject and allows him to provide an excellent contrast to the vibrant and various sheen of Ronan’s ‘imbetween.’
And it is with this ‘imbetween’ world that Jackson truly stumbles. A difficult literary concept to adapt, Ronan’s ability to see her family and their life without her is not only a complex concept, but a complicated element to visualize. And despite the beauty of Jackson’s ‘imbetween’, its concept doesn’t seem to be thought out with Jabez Olssen’s editing appearing conflicted and scattered rather than concise and paced. There is hardly any rhythm or pulse to the editing, which allows the story to falter and frankly, drag.
A project like this one is an excellent reminder that a piece with a considerable cast, talented director, and well done original content can still become a misshapen mess. Yet by the end of The Lovely Bones one will not remain completely untouched. As its story of dismantled, dismembered, and destroyed innocence still resonates in modern society. Rape, murder, and violations occur every minute, every hour, and every day. And as always, sadly always, those lives and traumas are never returned or mended. Bones remain broken.