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Laying Vengeance to Rest

The Lovely Bones (2009)

DreamWorks Studios

Doubt Peter Jackson’s cinematic instincts at your peril. His credentials have been well established throughout a career in which he’s demonstrated mastery of a range of subjects and styles both large (“Lord of the Rings”) and small (micro-budget B pictures such as “Dead Alive”). Yet those instincts fail him in his adaptation of the acclaimed Alice Sebold novel “The Lovely Bones.”

Perhaps encumbered by the scale of the production and the necessary modifications to what’s reportedly a frank and uncompromising literary work, he’s transformed a serious, unsettling story into a reductive thriller-cum-special effects display. No matter how often the soundtrack swells or the camera swoops and soars through tender montage, the picture is sadly inert.

“The Lovely Bones” is set in suburban Pennsylvania during the 1970s; and with the tweed jackets, bushy hairstyles and yellowed wooden interiors on display, Mr. Jackson and his production team never let you forget it. Susie Salmon (Saorise Ronan), a precocious girl with an independent streak, seems headed for a one-way ticket out of town to bigger and better things once she finishes school. Her narration, though, tells us early on that this won’t be the case. In a scene that unnervingly blends Mr. Jackson’s penchant for magical realism with the narrative’s grittier underpinnings, her neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) lures her into a dungeon he’s constructed below some cornfields and murders her.

The rest of the picture consists of a dual narrative that’s split between Susie’s experience of the “in-between” — a world between life and death that’s shaped by outsized, fantastical versions of the defining places and possessions of her time on Earth — and the living world she’s left behind. But the filmmaker pays mere lip service to the Salmon family’s grieving process, hardly bothering to develop the strife that emerges between parents Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz). The entire Salmon family other than Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon) sticks to one note.

Mr. Jackson is more preoccupied with Susie and her killer. The filmmaker’s rendition of George Harvey’s interior life — the character spends most of the movie sitting alone in his dark home, sweaty and panicked — evokes the profound claustrophobia of such a miserable existence. The film benefits from the transformative, highly physical performance by Mr. Tucci, who reinvents himself behind garbled diction, a messy garish wig, oversized glasses and a sizable potbelly. It’s a rounded portrait of a vile man without merit — easily the fullest portrayal in the picture — and Mr. Jackson must be credited for recognizing that and shifting focus accordingly.

However, movies don’t get made about the mind of a serial child murderer, especially not films of this scale and prestige. There must be light to counterbalance the dark, and Mr. Jackson flubs it. It’s meant to be found in his rendition of the in-between as an ever shifting fantasia of golden computer generated landscapes, and the heavy-handed symbolism that takes hold in Susie’s communications from beyond the grave. Sadly, no amount of breathy first-person narration or reaction shots of Susie observing her family from the in-between can compensate for the stagnancy that sets in.

Too often, Mr. Jackson goes the “Lord of the Rings”-“Heavenly Creatures” route, virtually plagiarizing himself in several shots. The oversaturated C.G.I. sights and sounds of the in-between repeatedly call attention to themselves, distracting from the personal focus that should be applied to the screenplay’s journey into Susie’s subconscious. Instead of showing the restraint the material requires, the filmmaker imitates Terry Gilliam. He flexes his conceptual muscles even when he aims for the heart, mixing dark, ominous widescreen imagery with the insufferably golden magic-hour hue that lesser talents typically employ to trigger emotions.

The self-indulgence might have been acceptable had Mr. Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens found something interesting for Susie to do, but her primary function is to stand and watch the events on Earth. For all the imagination applied to the design of her scenes and the morphing series of landscapes she inhabits, the story falls flat. That can, in part, be attributed to the challenge of adapting for the big screen a novel told from an unreliable first-person point of view, but screenwriters have been overcoming that obstacle for decades.

The filmmaker appears to sense something’s gone wrong in the transition. He tries to overcompensate by adding an endless stream of flourishes, keeping his camera constantly moving and creating a dreamy, hazy atmosphere enhanced by a piano-heavy soundtrack. When the killer is onscreen, the picture aims for classical, low-budget tension informed by the slightest creaking of a floorboard or the slow drizzle of sweat down a brow. It’s entertaining to a point, and the film might even be deemed a technical marvel; but there’s more feeling in this line of narration, spoken by Susie, than in all of Mr. Jackson’s cinematic magic: “I was here for a moment and then I was gone. I wish you all a happy life.”


Opens on Dec. 11 in the United States and on Jan. 29, 2010 in Britain.

Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Mr. Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, based on the novel by Alice Sebold; director of photography, Andrew Lesnie; edited by Jabez Olssen; production designer, Naomi Shohan; music by Brian Eno; produced by Mr. Jackson, Ms. Walsh, Carolynne Cunningham and Aimée Peyronnet; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 19 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Mark Wahlberg (Jack Salmon), Rachel Weisz (Abigail Salmon), Susan Sarandon (Grandma Lynn), Stanley Tucci (George Harvey), Michael Imperioli (Len Fenerman), Saoirse Ronan (Susie Salmon), Rose McIver (Lindsey Salmon), Christian Thomas Ashdale (Buckley Salmon), Carolyn Dando (Ruth) and Reece Ritchie (Ray Singh).


Thanks for the perceptive review. However, I believe the last line of the film is actually, "I wish you all a long and happy life."

I think you will agree the difference is significant.

Funny how film reviewers can never get anything right!

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