Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, by Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones is treated sensitively by the lord of adaptations, Peter Jackson. For those unfamiliar with the story, the attention-grabbing opening lines of the book are, “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6th 1973.”
The rest of plot unfolds as Susie looks down upon her mourning family and menacing murderer from the “in-between”, a place between Heaven and earth. It takes an uncompromising look at needless death, yet encourages readers to find solace in others in the wake of such a catastrophe.
The film is warmly acted by a star-studded cast. Mark Walburg plays Susie’s loving and protective father with no hints of cliché. In the aftermath of Susie’s death, the whole family heads towards breakdown and her father deals with his grief is an obsessive attempt to find Susie’s killer. Walburg adds human depth to this character by avoiding cinematic melodrama in his acting. His character along with Susie’s sister, Lindsey, (Rose McIver) create much of the suspense in the film while searching for Susie’s murderer.
You may recognise Susie (Saoirse Ronan) as Briony in Atonement, for which she was nominated for best supporting actress at the Oscars. In Susie’s role, Ronan is far from overwhelmed with the emotional intensity of this character. There was potential for an adaptation of this book to be played out like another Baz Luhrmann heart-string tugging dramatic disaster. However, Ronan acts with such maturity and avoids any histrionic banality so that this film becomes much more than just a “weepie”.
Susan Sarandon plays the drunken grandmother in the ever-more dysfunctional family. Although she is a domestic disaster, she somehow manages to hold them family together. Very proactive in her slurring, stumbling way, Sarandon’s character provides the much needed comic relief. Her character pads out this film, making it more dynamic and well rounded. When talking of her character, Sarandon said she was fun to play, as she got away with saying the blunt insensitive things that sometimes just need to be said. For this role, Sarandon admits she went to the Cher School of Wig Acting – she is a dolled up g.i.l.f when she first appears, but (like ogres and onions) she has many layers. As she reveals the greater depths of her character the layers of false eyelashes, make up and wigs decrease, leaving a ravaged looking, but extremely lovable but less fuckable grandmother at the end.
The attractive Rachel Weisz plays a very convincing mother, overwhelmed with the tragic events that unfold. Weisz’s character has vast emotional arc which she delicately achieves and, like Walburg, her elegant manner of acting means that this film does not stray too far into the realms of melodrama. The killer is played by Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada, The Terminal). His character is so well played it makes you question what you would have done in Susie’s situation (unlike in a typical thiller where you shout in disgust at the screen due to the sheer stupidity of all the characters, and in the end you’re actually pleased when they all die). Through his character, elements of fear and suspense are cemented in the film, which breaks up the emotional intensity. I feel there might be an Oscar nomination in here for Tucci in this claustrophobic characterisation of the killer.
The film has been criticised for its attempts to appeal to a broader, younger audience. To do this, Peter Jackson took the artistic decision to cut much of the graphic content of the book out of the film. Having said that, several scenes are still uncomfortable to watch. Although some of the graphic content is cut – in particular the rape scene – the tone and implication of it survives in the film. What is left to the imagination is sometimes just as powerful, if not more so.
Another point of contention is Jackson’s portrayal of the “in-between”. Some say that Jackson has gone to town on the CGI effects, but I say, what do you expect from the Godfather of fantastical imagery? This is what Jackson excels at, so please, recognise talent when you see it. There are references to many mediums in what Susie’s “in-between” is based upon, such as art by Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dali, and some of the scenes look like they could have been set in The Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz and maybe even Jeepers Creepers.
Like Alfred Hitchcock said, “Some films are slices of life; mine are slices of cake”. Jackson maintains a balance between gritty reality and extraordinary fantasy to create a brilliant adaptation. Perhaps not quite as good as the book, but thankfully it doesn’t make the mistake of trying to exactly emulate the book and failing. The film is different enough to stand alone as a cinematic achievement without ruining the book for those who already love the story. All in all The Lovely Bones is just that; lovely.
By Hannah White
The Lovely Bones will be on general release from 29th January 2010.