Like the temptation of a big red button that reads ‘Do Not Push’, New Zealand director Peter Jackson simply cannot resist filming the so-called ‘unfilmable’. First it was J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and now it’s Alice Sebold’s bestseller The Lovely Bones; a densely themed story of a teenage girl, who after being brutally murdered, watches over her broken family and sadistic killer from heaven.
While Jackson might have aced Rings, he only just manages to pull off Bones. This is a film that shines only in short, erratic bursts. It can be an emotional film, a disturbing film, a romantic film, a funny film and a breathtaking film, but never a seamless blend of each.
“I was just 14 years old when I was murdered on December 6th, 1973” calmly narrates Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), speaking from the grave in a fashion reminiscent of Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty. Her murderer, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), lives just down the road from her suburban home, preying on the cute schoolgirl as she chases after a particular boy for that first kiss. Yet her life is cut tragically short one night when Harvey’s lust becomes too great, sending her parents Abigail and Jack (Rachel Wiez and Mark Walhberg) and younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) into a downward spiral of grief and revenge.
Yet there is a message of hope, as the place between heaven and Earth — the “in-between” as it’s known — is a lot like the set of TV’s Teletubbies, complete with rolling green hills, gorgeous waterfalls and pristine beaches. And as Susie watches on from her celestial wonderland, unwilling to let go of her family and move on to even greener pastures, a tense crime drama unfolds back in reality as the hunt for her smarmy killer begins. But before we can cross back to that, Jackson must first get his fix of colourful CGI, frolicking in daisy fields beneath lollipop rainbows.
It’s all a bit kitsch, you see. What impact these glitzy sequences have on the moving drama of anguish and vengeance playing out below is negligible. Shifting the focus away from where it should be is something Jackson’s screenplay does more than once, as if deliberately trying to water down the sobering themes of Sebold’s novel. Another scene, for example, sees Susie’s eccentric gin-loving grandma — Susan Sarandon, of course — help out with the housework while Abigail and Jack are trying to come to terms with their loss. I wouldn’t be surprised if this scene was lifted out of another movie entirely. It simply doesn’t fit. It’s a shameless attempt at comic relief that hits as subtly as a brick to the face. And if there’s one thing this film needs, but never gets, it’s subtlety.
Despite all these weaknesses, I still found myself engaged by Bones. For one, the main cast is excellent, young Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, City of Ember) commanding the screen with her soul-seeing blue eyes that would give Daniel Craig a run for his money. Ronan’s going to be big, no question. Then there’s Mark Wahlberg, who returns to form after stinkers like The Happening and Max Payne as Susie’s distraught dad, a man completely blinded by revenge. Masquerading as your typical nice-guy neighbour, Stanley Tucci (Julie & Julia, The Terminal) is harrowing to watch as the disturbed killer, almost unrecognisable behind a blonde wig and a 70s moustache. His wicked character fills us with fear, disgust and rage, the kind of emotions that Jackson’s meticulous direction puts to good use when crafting this film into a tightly strung thriller. He is clearly at his most comfortable during these scenes, using lingering close-ups, repeat cutaways to stretch out time and dark, moody lighting to increase the tension. It’s enough to make you wish the whole film was a thriller.
But fans of Sebol’s novel will be the first to tell you that the heart and soul of the original story was not the murder mystery. Nor was it the glittery fantasy elements. It was, first and foremost, a stirring family drama about life, love, loss and ultimately acceptance. These themes, particularly the latter, haven’t made a smooth transition to the big screen.
The jigsaw pieces of a magnificent drama are all here, piled in front of us, ready to be made into a coherent whole. Yet for some reason, be it a result of his attempts to make a film with wider appeal or simply because Sebold’s novel really is unfilmable, Peter Jackson can’t quite get all the pieces to fit.