Saiorse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon
Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Have you ever watched a stick of incense burn until nothing remains but its ashes?
Such is the experience of watching The Lovely Bones, based upon an extraordinary book by Alice Sebold about 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saiorse Ronan, Atonement).
Raped and murdered by a reclusive neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci, Julie & Julia), virtually entire film is experienced from the perspective of young Susie watching over her family and her killer from that rather nondescript place between heaven and earth as she wrestles with her own desire for vengeance and her desire for her family's healing and, as well, her own ability to simply let go into that place where her rape and murder will seemingly not even be a memory for her.
The Lovely Bones is a masterpiece.
But not quite.
All the pieces are in place for The Lovely Bones to soar cinematically.
As Susie, Saiorse Ronan is simply extraordinary in selling an existence that dwells between heaven and earth. Without stooping to the melodramatics of a film such as "What Dreams May Come" and yet clearly placing her character in a place other than an earthly existence, Ronan embodies this young innocent child with all the enthusiasm, exhilaration and innocence of your typical, everyday 14-year-old who is both beginning to find her place in the world and yet still largely dependent upon the world around her for its affirmation. Ronan, who received her first Oscar nomination at the age of 13 for Atonement, will most assuredly receive another nomination for her performance here and clearly places herself among the upper echelon of young Hollywood actresses.
So, too, among a career of extraordinary performances both comic and dramatic, Stanley Tucci creates a quietly masterful portrayal as George Harvey, an unfathomably reprehensible man whose humanity is drawn out in such a way that he seems less like an animal and more like the truly evil human being his actions prove him to be. Tucci's every word, every gesture and every glare work together to create a jigsaw puzzle of inhumanity manifesting in a seemingly reclusive yet fairly ordinary older gent.
These two performances, of Saiorse Ronan and Stanley Tucci, when blended together with Sebold's wonderful source material blend together to create the potential for 2009's most extraordinary and moving cinematic experiences.
Then arrives director Peter Jackson, behemoth director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong and devourer of all things defined by cinematic and sensory excess not relegated to James Cameron.
Jackson is so hellbent on portraying the otherworld of Susie Salmon and creating a visual sense to companion her existence between heaven and earth that he very nearly sucks the heart and soul out of The Lovely Bones and what begins as one of the year's best pics nearly disintegrates before your very eyes into a mix of What Dreams May Come with Ordinary People.
While there will undoubtedly be those who will embrace and appreciate Jackson's vision and portrayal of the world in which Salmon now exists, most are likely to find Jackson's penchant for mystical and magical imagery a distraction away from what is a truly moving story. It is hard not to wonder if it was this mystical, ethereal world that comprised the "creative differences" that caused Ryan Gosling, originally cast as Susie's father, to withdraw from the production a mere few days before shooting was to begin. Gosling, who'd grown a beard and gained 20 pounds for the complex portrayal of Jack Salmon, would have likely provided significantly more depth than late addition Mark Wahlberg. While Wahlberg certainly gives one of his stronger performances here, it rings a bit hollow at times and lacks the depth even of his cinematic spouse, Abigail, a wonderful Rachel Weisz.
The real miracle of The Lovely Bones is that despite the interference of Peter Jackson as director and co-screenwriter, the film itself remains infinitely watchable and an acting tour-de-force for all involved including Susan Sarandon's marvelous turn in what amounts to a bit role as Susie's nearly always wrong grandmother that gives the film both a touch of comic relief and relaxed humanity.
A likely difficult sell at the box-office given its rather intense themes, an effort has been made by Jackson to soften its impact and, indeed, the film falls well within its PG-13 rating. Susie's murder is decidedly non-graphic in its portrayal and her rape, vivid in Sebold's novel, is barely hinted at in the film. Set in 1973, Jackson does do a great job of giving the film that feeling of the year being a time before the nation was truly becoming aware of just how cruel humanity could be towards children. Andrew Lensie's lensing is stellar and Naomi Shohan's production design is time appropriate and nicely balanced between Susie's otherworld and the seemingly faded out world from which she came. The film also features a fine musical score by Brian Eno that nicely complements its moments of humanity and touches of mysticism.
There will be film critics and others who will scream out that Jackson has ruined "The Lovely Bones," however, the ensemble cast works together and creates a powerful, heartfelt and deeply moving portrayal of one innocent girl and her life after life.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic