The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones fills the dubious position of being a film that centres on the act of a child’s brutal murder, directed by Peter Lord of the Rings Jackson. Beloved of fanboys the world over, Jackson is responsible for epic blockbusters such as 2005’s bloated King Kong remake and, of course, his stellar adaptations of Tolkien’s cherished trilogy. Throw in a few lesser known offerings from his back catalogue, such as 1992’s low-budget cult bloodbath Braindead, and Jackson cuts a somewhat flamboyant figure.

While his directing credentials are firmly established, you’d be forgiven for thinking such sensitive material as The Lovely Bones would be safer in the hands of a Fincher or even a Cronenberg, rather than a filmmaker renowned for his devotion to eyeball-juddering visual spectacle.

But you’d be wrong. With Jackson at the helm of this adaptation of Alice Sebold’s bestselling 2002 novel, The Lovely Bones hangs together as a taut psychological thriller that is crammed with accomplished directorial flourishes on both a stylistic and thematic level.

Based around the murder of the 14 year old Suzie Salmon ( Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan), it’s hard to crowbar The Lovely Bones into a particular genre. Part spiritual detective story and part gut-wrenching drama, the story examines the young protagonist’s life, the circumstances of her death at the hands of paedophile and serial killer George Harvey (a horribly convincing Stanley Tucci), and the aftermath of her absence.

The twist in the tale comes via the fact that it is Suzie s spirit that is narrating the events, as it languishes in the metaphysical limbo inbetween Heaven and Earth. In an inventive nod to literary magic realism, Suzie’s character is fully integrated into the plot while only being physically present for around a quarter of the film itself. Her family’s tortured pursuit of her killer in the years following the murder is paralleled by Suzie’s own attempts to help them from her spiritual plane, and her eventual desire for closure.

One of the movie’s unique stamps of character is the ease with which it slides between violently opposed sensations and ideas. Through the collision of the innocent and the malign, the mundane and the magnificent, The Lovely Bones proves to be an unlikely masterclass in the handling of varied emotional states on screen. The ecstasy of Suzie’s youth and nascent romance with lust object Ray Singh (an unimpressive Reece Ritchie) is interweaved remarkably well with Harvey’s lurking horror as he meticulously plans her slaughter, with Jackson clearly relishing the broad palette of moods at his disposal.

The film’s stunning depiction of the Inbetween provides the best example of this artistry, as the director leads us back into the lush CGI territory that made his name. An overwrought oil painting it may be, but as one divine vista melts into another the visuals are so heart-rendingly gorgeous you can’t help but be impressed.

Back on Earth, the 1970s context of the story provides an ideal platform for a critique of prevalent social and sexual mores. The recurring motif of containment is drawn by ships in bottles, dolls houses, even a hat on a head, bringing the theme of protection and its evil twin control to the surface. A pleasingly bold feminist undercurrent holds Sebold’s influence intact in the body of the film.

In addition to the precocious Ronan, The Lovely Bones is blessed with an excellent cast, with Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon all vying for attention even when the movie’s pace lapses in the second half.

Tucci deserves special praise as the abhorrent, flesh-crawling Harvey, bringing real flair to an unexpected role. Instantaneously flipping between disarmingly affable persona and repellent reality, his scenes positively crackle with pitch dark, menacing intensity.

After slumping towards its end, the film’s decisive encounter between Harvey and Suzie’s younger sister Lindsey marks a startling escalation in tension, delivering one of the most emotionally riveting scenes in recent memory. Aside from the breathtaking visuals, if Jackson’s signature rests anywhere in The Lovely Bones it is in these cold sweat, desperately uncomfortable cat-and-mouse moments that pepper the script.

Unfortunately, the movie falters again at its finale, lapsing into a sentimentality it very much resisted previously. However, in spite of a weak ending Jackson’s adaptation is ultimately a compelling blend of abstract romanticism and earthy emotional turmoil, all strung together with a wonderfully deft touch.

The Lovely Bones

135 mins

Director: Peter Jackson

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