The Lovely Bones – Knockin’ on heaven’s door

the-lovely-bones-posterIn 2002, relatively unknown author Alice Sebold saw her first fiction novel, The Lovely Bones, become a bestseller, garnering almost universal critical acclaim from the literary world, and owing many of its sales to word of mouth.

Such surprise success would almost certainly result in talk of a film adaptation, and Peter Jackson, the man behind the glorious Lord of the Rings adaptations, was the man eventually handed director’s duties by producer Steven Spielberg.

The film adaptation of The Lovely Bones sees 14 year-old photographer-wannabe Susie Salmon lulled into an underground trap by a neighbour named George Harvey. It appears at first that, after a brief struggle, she manages to escape and run to freedom, but it quickly becomes clear that she has been murdered and is watching the subsequent events that occur after her death.

She watches from a heaven-like place; a world that is only limited by her own imagination, and one which serves as a precursor to her spirit’s final resting place. She remains in this limbo until such time that she chooses to move on; something which she is regularly encouraged to do by a mysterious little girl who accompanies her.

She observes her family and friends, and their respective responses to her untimely, grotesque demise. Her attempts to contact her loved ones have minimal success and only serve to aggravate the situation, as her father, Jack, starts to lose his mind in his relentless quest for justice. Meanwhile, her murderer attempts to cover up any evidence of his sickening act, although it is clear he has other secrets to hide.

One of the most striking aspects of The Lovely Bones is the fine acting; any story that offers filmmakers an opportunity to indulge heavily in aesthetics could, and often does, produce a cinematic experience where visuals eclipse performance. In The Lovely Bones, the actors hold their own.

Newcomer Saoirse Ronan captures the wonderful innocence and rapid maturity of Susie Salmon. Her minor early moments of teenage angst are a fitting reminder of her age, and that the tedious little arguments that inevitably take place in the home can be easily dwarfed by an emotional bombshell of real importance.

Stanley Tucci (Julie & Julia, Lucky Number Slevin) portrays psychotic neighbour, and Susie’s murderer, George Harvey. Tucci received mass praise for this role; he delivers a powerful performance of a man with a chilling and utterly evil mind, sick and twisted beyond comprehension. He is as sinister as he is methodical.

Praise should also go to Susan Sarandon, Susie’s pragmatic and alcoholic grandmother. She is a wonderful actress who will always bring a delightful and authentic edge to any role. Susie’s parents, portrayed by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, are also excellent, delivering many of the film’s most heart-aching moments.

Peter Jackson is a master of visuals; even his early work with grim horror flicks Braindead and Bad Taste showed a real eye for aesthetics. He could, in many respects, be positively compared with visual maestro Terry Gilliam.

Sebold intentionally set out to create a story that involved an ambiguous heaven – no mention of God or religion, simply a separate plane of existence. Jackson captures the ethereal and oft-imagined idea of heaven, where there are clouds, colours and glorious landscapes; he also manages to maintain Sebold’s idea of ambiguity by leaving out any trace of angels, harps or any of the other more dubious stereotypical images. This ambiguity is ideal because the story is not one that adheres to any religious ideology; the main focus is that of a child’s objective awareness and understanding of a situation out of her control.

Her friends and family, much like Susie herself, need time to accept the new way of things before they can all move on. The visual representation of this transition could be mental, physical or metaphorical, but it is universally necessary for the characters’ closure.

The film is by no means perfect, however. As we reach the final third, the film becomes somewhat clumsy and muddled, with an ending that feels rushed, and a conclusion to Harvey’s character that is only disappointing in its blatant act of audience awareness. Tucci’s incredible performance is almost undermined by Harvey’s unlikely final few moments. Even though this is lifted straight from the book, it feels slightly lazy, and is therefore out of place.

Minor parts of the script are slightly clunky, and Jackson holds back during the film’s harrowing opener. In the original novel, Susie is actually raped, murdered and dismembered in an act of ultimate brutality. This is essentially removed, and only partially implied, but Jackson could be forgiven for doing this in order to reach a wider audience with the story and its message (such a scene, if faithfully adapted, would surely result in something stronger than the allocated 12 certificate).

Which leads nicely onto the final point; what is the film’s key message? It seems to imply that an act of pure unrelenting violence requires no retribution, only understanding and acceptance. This, however, directly contradicts Harvey’s final moments, where nature appears to randomly intervene. If the message is that intervention is not necessary, then why pander to an audience’s instinctive wish for the villain to receive an appropriate punishment?

Perhaps the film’s most resonating sentiment is its stark message to treat every moment with a loved one as if it were the last.

The Lovely Bones is undoubtedly a beautiful tale; brilliantly-acted, shot with glorious imagination and packing an emotional punch that would see Mike Tyson crash to the canvas.

It is at once bright and dark, joyous but devastating and ultimately an excellent two hours of vivid, powerful storytelling.

Image: Hawtmag

One Response to “The Lovely Bones – Knockin’ on heaven’s door”

  1. John Lee says:

    I’ve seen this movie last week at home, it’s good

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