The Lovely Bones
Hold on though, I'm getting ahead of myself, let's look at the plot and then we'll get into the review of the film, and as always, it's spoiler free. Well just about always, and when it's not there are clear warnings.
This isn't a spoiler, this happens in the very early stages of the story, and the rest of the film follows Susie as she watches the real world try and cope without her and solve her murder while she holds in limbo, a perfect world just a few steps away from her heaven.
All the while the murderer is close by, hidden in the local community, and while he was satisfied with killing Susie, his dark desires are rising once again.
The film hits you with a powerful opening, building two contrasting story-lines pointing them towards each other and keeping them driving forward, one of Susie Salmon, and the other of the murderer himself. Each carries a different tone and feel, and as they cut back and forth to each other Peter Jackson really does manage to build the tension and suspense well. In the cinema the tension was palatable, and I really mean that.
The actual shocking event where the two stories meet and the murderer comes face to face with Susie, is superbly handled on screen. The film seemed to both take the story a little further than expected to make it shocking and disturbing, and at the same time not too far to make it hugely upsetting. It was pitched at just the right point.
Later on in the film we return to this scene to see some more of the events, and they are equally as shocking, but still very well handled. The potential abuse and murder of a young girl by a middle aged man could well be seen as a hugely upsetting and quite horrific scene, but Peter Jackson plays it just right and delivers the horror of the situation without the graphic aspect.
The second time we visit her death the tension is huge for the audience and the woman next to me was hiding her face, moaning and struggling to watch.
Yet even with this strength early on it wasn't perfect, throughout these scenes there were some off moments of odd camera shots and turns, making the real seem slightly surreal, something I thought would have been more suited to the scenes where Susie is in the afterlife. However they didn't distract too much, and the power of the events kept you involved.
The very final moments of Susie on Earth are shown well, even we as the audience aren't entirely sure of the moment until later on, and it's nice that the film makes you think over these scenes rather than spelling everything out for you, leaving more to the imagination than the average film.
Once the character of Susie has moved to her afterlife there's another distinct split in the film
between the real world and hers. In her afterlife, effects are used well to show her manipulating it to her every desire, and the world changing to reflect emotional feelings and changes back home in the real world where the filming is straight forward, well shot and without effects, sometimes a little washed out of colour.
Another aspect that's handled really well here is the change of time in the real world while we flip back and forth between Susie's afterlife. There's no real reference of time, but through the characters, Susie's voice-over, sets, clothing and make-up, it's all felt rather than told. I like that aspect, and it's an aspect that happens a lot through the film. We're not fed the answers, just shown the way.
The two worlds move forward and the family struggle with the fact that the murder has not been found, the father fights on, the mother wants to move on but doesn't know where the problem is.
It's the father that provides the connection with Susie in her afterlife, and through their stories and the couple of moments when they connect, there's a real feeling that this is where the breakthrough is going to happen. That Susie will manage to tell her father, or guide him in some way, to the murderer. In fact the story takes a huge dramatic leap towards this moment setting both story-lines up for a convergence, then just breezes by and ignores it.
What happens then is the story of the main character just seems to be relegated to the odd scene of her watching from the other side. The whole story of her and the father just seems to be dropped and the story continues as a standard thriller. It makes you feel as though there's no real need for the Susie story-line through the latter part of the film.
Actually, and this has just struck me as I write this review, this makes you feel that we're missing a different cut, or more importantly, missing out on much more from the book.
What we're left with is a thriller in the real world, although to be fair it is handled really well. The rising story of Susie's sister is one of the strongest parts of the film, barring the initial meeting of Susie and her murderer. The sister's rising suspicions and her growing connection to the murderer make the second half, and deliver the best scenes.
The scenes of her played against those of the murderer are so wonderfully filmed and edited that they stand as a guide on how to craft tension and suspense in a film. The shots are perfectly drawn out, perfectly paced, the set-up sucks you right in, and delivers a number of very non-Hollywood moments. I utterly loved these scenes and would have loved more of this.
The main character does return in a dramatic sense a couple of times in the latter half of the film, once to revisit the events before she died and deliver more unnerving moments and remind us what is driving the characters forward, and the other for some of the final scenes.
It's also here where there's another big let down in the film. Although the real world events have been leading to a great moment, we're only half rewarded and the moment Susie finds she has a chance to allow her murderer to be caught and give a proper closure to the family, she uses it for her own gain and her last grasp at being alive.
This really bothered me as it revealed another chance she had, throughout the film, to connect with people and never used it, not to mention the fact that she ignores what's happening right in front of her eyes. Another lost pivotal moment and an the first step in the unsatisfying ending.
The ultimate ending is equally unsatisfying and I'm not sure if it's meant to leave you with that kind of feeling, a conclusion that doesn't even feel like it's born of the events, but a poor attempt at creating some sort of Hollywood ending to the film.
So although the story had some great moments, it didn't flow well between the two worlds, and the second half seemed much more a standard thriller with a tacked on ending, or two.
The performances are superb, except for a few moments with Mark Wahlberg who, when trying to convey emotion just doesn't seem believable, the same problem I had with him when he was teaching the class at the start of The Happening (Filmstalker review). However, to be fair to him, he does pick up the pace afterwards and delivers some great moments.
There are three actors and actresses who really do stand out in the film and give us amazing performances. One is Susan Sarandon playing the glamorous and selfish Granny, she is fabulous and I loved her character and her journey, even if she isn't allowed to develop her character and just shown a single few seconds near the end of the film to suggest that she's changed.
The second performance that really stands out is the wonderful Stanley Tucci, I think he's a fantastic actor and would definitely be in my dream casting, but so often he's taking a supporting role and never leading. Here though, we get the next best thing and his performance as the murderer and we're treated to plenty of quality screen time.
It's Saoirse Ronan that really blew me away. Her performance, despite the story dropping her for the second half, is an emotional roller coaster and easily manages to capture your heart in various ways through the film. From her fear sitting with the murderer early on in the film, to her anger seeing him begin to get obsessed for another girl, and her broken heart at various points, all these moments perfectly capture her emotion, and the audience with them. I was amazed to see how old the actress is, and already giving a performance like this.
I'd say it's these performances, and the moments of great filming, which repair a lot of damage done with the fractured and dropped story-lines.
A couple of other points worth mentioning are the effects of the other world, they really made me feel like I was watching a Terry Gilliam film at times, and that was a good thing, they fitted these sequences perfectly.
Another aspect of the film that deserves a mention is the music, and the emotive key theme which repeats at different stages and compounds different emotional points. The orchestration by Brian Eno and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is wonderful.
There's also the amazing work on the sets and costumes, which so easily transport the audience back to the seventies. These were absolutely flawless and really do deserve a mention whenever this film is discussed.
Oh, and finally, the appearance by Peter Jackson is a nice moment, just watch during the photograph collection scene.
I have to say I did find The Lovely Bones disappointing mainly due to the mishandling of the story-line and giving me the feeling that it was either heavily cut to deliver a different story, or that the novel carried so many more crossing threads that were never explored.
However there are some really strong moments in the film and these all revolve around the murderer meeting the other people in the film. Stanley Tucci's character is fantastic and is the real core of the film.
Saoirse Ronan is a great find too, and her performance will emotionally draw you into her character and the film, despite the weak second half for her character.
The ending really fails for me, missing the mark twice, just as the main plot did half way through the film. I'm really not sure why these choices were made, but I truly believe that the film could have delivered the same message about dealing with loss had it played out differently, the way I expected it to turn out.