"The Lovely Bones": Uneven but well-acted
"The Lovely Bones" is a compelling but uneven, empty drama with some afterlife thrown in. Based on the best-selling Alice Sebold novel, it’s a handsome production that’s uniformly well-acted, but the mixture of real-world murder case and heavenly musings don’t mesh entirely well. Jackson does a serviceable job of translating Sebold’s complex novel, though the end result is more shopworn than necessary.
In December 1973, Susie Salmon (“Atonement’s” Saiorse Ronan) is murdered by a neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) a serial killer of young girls and women. She finds herself in 'the in-between' a Heaven-like place, observing her parents Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz) and her sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) grieve and piece together the circumstances behind her death. She also watches her killer who, having covered his tracks successfully, is preparing to murder again. Susie struggles to balance her desire for vengeance on Harvey and her desire to have her family recover from their loss.
“The Lovely Bones “ is a convincing drama on level ground, though its statements on purgatory and afterlife are over sentimental and aren’t integrated well into the storyline. It doesn’t help that Sebold’s unconventional novel is a difficult one to translate to screen, with a handful of important details in the novel changed by Jackson and his usual writing partners, his wife Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens, who helped him pen the “The Lord of the Rings” films. The mixture of Susie wandering around the “in between” (interestingly, the word purgatory is never used) has been expounded from the novel and while the pretty production is design, as usual, is impressive, doesn’t really add to the film.
The film’s best moments are when Jackson grounds the film and Susie is forced to watch the proceedings from the afterlife. Ronan, an excellent young actress who reminds of a young Cate Blanchett, gives another sublime performance as the main protagonist Susie, and she ably carries the film on her back. Her facial expressions are a wonder and she has the unique ability to subtly convey emotion with her face, a trait that many skilled actresses today have difficulty with.
Wahlberg contributes a strong turn as the confounded, pensive father, while Tucci is especially slimy as the creepy neighbor who’s truly a creep and Australian actress McIver is also strong as the older sister who begins to figure things out before the adults do (and has the film’s best scene inside the killer’s home). Disappointing in the large cast is “The Soprano’s” Michael Imperioli in a one-note detective role, and Weisz has little to do in a truncated role. Susan Sarandon gives the film some colorful heft as the grandmother who sweeps in to take care of the family during their grief, a blowsy alcoholic grandma type that Shelley Winters would’ve played back in the day, and the type of role that’s often nominated for awards.
Jackson skims the surface in “The Lovely Bones” especially in the purgatory state. These scenes are lovely to look at but don’t provide any genuine emotional connection. In the novel, the family has more of a sense of moving on, in the film they have a difficult time of doing that. It would’ve been nice to see the film progress a little more than it does, and while a handful of scenes and quotes are lifted from the book, it’s not exactly a faithful adaptation of Sebold’s best-seller.
“The Lovely Bones” is a lovely film to look at, though it lacks a powerful resonance that a drama like this should have. The film’s memorable special effects, music and production design, along with the excellent performances from Ronan, Tucci and Sarandon will likely garner some notice, but otherwise it’s a vacuous effort from the Oscar-winning director from “The Lord of the Rings.”