Starring Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci and Susan Sarandon. Directed by Peter Jackson. 139 mins.
After The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, a Peter Jackson film sets up an expectation for most audiences for an epic adventure with special effects and action. It is unfair to him – audiences should remember Heavenly Creatures – and he has tried to break through the expectation with this American story of 1973 in a small Pennsylvania town where a serial killer murders a 14 year old girl. Teenagers and murder may remind some of Heavenly Creatures and that is probably a good thing because that film blended realism with fantasy and imagination. Which is what The Lovely Bones does as well.
It is based on a novel by Alice Sebold, who is thanked in the final credits (though devotees of the novel have not hesitated in blogging how much they dislike the film and Jackson's interpretation of the novel).
What distinguishes the film from other murder stories is that it is narrated by the dead Susie Salmon, who guides the audience through what happened to her (with some restraint in what is actually shown on screen). The other distinguishing feature is that she is shown, not in Heaven, but in a temporary afterlife called the In Between, where the landscapes, touches of lollipops and rainbows, is part of the dead girl's imagination (something similar to the visions of heaven in Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come), that of a young female teenager (rather than the In Between that some adult critics thought should be modelled on their imagination, which might mean something of a dour place rather than the sentimentality they said they experienced). It is interesting to look back at Heavenly Creatures and see how Peter Jackson also created the imaginary world of his teenage murderers.
Susie's family are distraught, the father (Mark Wahlberg, good but sometimes too restrained though he does have a number of angry outbursts) becomes obsessed and makes demands on the friendly detective on the case (Michael Imperioli). The mother (Rachel Weisz, who is a strong screen presence) cannot cope with what has happened and with her husband's persistence in searching, so has to go away from her family. Susan Sarandon appears as the hard-drinking, smoking grandmother who seems too much of a caricature for the tone of this storytelling. The victim's sister (Rose McIver) uses her grief with more initiative and precipitates the resolution of the case.
But it is Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, City of Ember, Death Defying Acts) who commands attention as Susie – in her ordinary life before her death, in the encounter with the killer, in her delight and her distress in the In Between and her desire that the killer give an account of his crime. And Stanley Tucci as the quiet neighbour who is the smooth-tongued serial murderer gives a performance that takes us into the devious mind and emotions of a sexual predator.
Because the story told by the victim is not usual, audiences may find it hard to respond to its changing moods and locations. This reviewer found the character of the grandmother unbalancing the impact and could have done without her. Audiences may be saying similar things about other aspects that they found difficult or off-putting. So, not an entirely satisfying experience, though Peter Jackson has tried to be creative in telling his tale in an offbeat style.
Paramount Out December 26 2009
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.