Saturday, January 02, 2010

Movie Review: The Lovely Bones (2009)

The Lovely Bones

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I have never lost a child and I can't even imagine what that would be like. But Peter Jackson's movie The Lovely Bones, based on Alice Sebold's novel of the same name, tries to tackle this issue head on. Not only does it attempt to portray the effect on a family after losing a child; it also grapples with the perspective of the child. It's a big ask and, unfortunately, Jackson, fails to deliver.

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is a 14 year old girl who is murdered by a neighbour but whose body is never found except for a part of her elbow and her hat. She watches from "the in-between" (a bit like a limbo) as her family try to cope with her disappearance. Susie attempts to influence people to bring about vengeance on the perpetrator of her murder. As the narrative progresses, our view shifts back and forth from earth to the in-between and we see the tension between Susie's desire for revenge and her desire for her family to heal.

The Lovely Bones had enormous potential and one would think it would reach that potential in the hands of a director like Peter Jackson (King Kong, Lord of the Rings trilogy, Heavenly Creatures). But it would seem that Jackson has become overly enamoured with his abilities with CGI effects, developed in his previous movies, because these dominate The Lovely Bones to such an extent that the human suffering experienced by those who are left behind after Susie's murder is completely diluted. What should have been a deep exploration of human grief and revenge turns out to be a vehicle to show off what Jackson can do with special effects.

Rachel Weisz (who plays Susie's mother), Mark Wahlberg (the father), Stanley Tucci (George Harvey, the murderer) and Saoirse Ronan (Susie Salmon) put in great effort portraying their characters but their performances just do not make up for the inadequacies of the script. Because of the excessive time spent showing Susie wandering around in the "in-between" with cheesy special effects, we are constantly dragged away from the human experience on earth.

There are some very powerful moments. The subtle abduction of Susie and the interaction between her and George Harvey, one of her neighbours, as he seduces her to accompany him into a den he has built underground and where she suddenly becomes aware of what he is about to do, is deeply disturbing (even though we don't actually see the rape and murder itself). In fact, Tucci's performance as the serial killer is very powerful — it stands out along with Ronan's Susie. But the other performances do not come anywhere near Tucci's and we are left with a skewed emphasis on the murderer rather than the very human story of loss, grief, and potential harmfulness of revenge, that should dominate the story.

Interestingly, a relative of mine who saw the movie, couldn't identify what the "message" of the movie was. They said they became so bored with all the time the story spent in the "in-between", that they gave up trying to work it out. But the theme is definitely there: we need to let go of anger and vengeance if we are to work through loss and grief to a healthy place in our lives. But the fact that the fantastical (and I use the word advisedly) existence of Susie in her after-death world, before she can be free to move on to heaven, so absorbs time and attention, that we lose any sense of deeply caring about Susie or her family.

The Lovely Bones novel has been widely acclaimed (I haven't read it) but the movie will not achieve the same regard. If you really must see it, wait for it to come out on DVD.


Positive Review
'Like “The Lord Of The Rings,” The Lovely Bones does a fantastic job with revered, complex source material. As terrific on terra firma as it is audacious in its astral plane, it is doubtful we’ll see a more imaginative, courageous film in 2010.' - Ian Freer/Empire

Negative Review
'A perfect storm of a movie disaster: You've got good actors fighting a poorly conceived script, under the guidance of a director who can no longer make the distinction between imaginativeness and computer-generated effects. The result is an expensive-looking mess that fails to capture the mood, and the poetry, of its source material.' - Stephanie Zacharek/

Content Advice
mature thematic material involving disturbing violent content and images, and some language

USA: PG-13

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  1. I believe the core message in 'Lovely Bones' is that it reminds us that even through someone has wronged us and caused us immeasurable pain, it is not our place or decision to seek our own brand of justice. Justice ultimately belongs to the Lord.

  2. I happened to think that this movie was amazing! It's now one of my new favorites. It might be just because I'm a teenager. I saw the point. It's that whenever someone does something really bad to you, you don't need to hang onto it forever. You need to move on if you can. I know that that can't really happen if you die, but it's still a REALLY good movie.

  3. I couldn't agree more with this review - it precisely articulates my experience with this film. It's potential muted by cheesy effects. The emotion which should have pervaded every interaction in the movie was nowhere to be found. 2 hours I'll never get back.