The movie is based on the remarkable 2002 novel The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. It was a haunting story written from the point of view of a murdered girl who looks down from a kind of heaven or “in-between place” and watches her family and her murderer in the aftermath of her death. It’s a risky premise, but Sebold carried it off well. Katherine Bouton in The New York Times Book Review , says, “This is a high-wire act for a first novelist, and Alice Sebold maintains almost perfect balance.”
So what went wrong? The script is not bad. But the cinematographic style that worked so well for The Lord of the Rings is far too heavy-handed for the spirit world that Susie inhabits while she is waiting to let go of her connection to the world of the living. Susie’s in-between world is a jarring place that alternates between a psychedelic Teletubbyland of saturated colours (this must mean happy) and a monochrome landscape of empty streets and dead trees (let’s see; perhaps sad?). The colours come and go, and leaves blow off trees, in a way probably intended to be meaningful, though the meaning escaped me.
Saoirse Ronan plays Susie and does a good job, although the movie relies on the camera lingering on her young, wide-eyed face far too often in lieu of a more nuanced approach. Stanley Tucci could have been very good as the dubious neighbour, but again there is a closeup of his face every time he narrows his eyes and looks shifty in a way that indicates he is the murderer. Susan Sarandon is given a thankless task as the comic relief. Whatever made Jackson think a few laughs would help matters?
Probably the most irritating character is that of Holly, Susie’s spirit guide. Holly (Nikki SooHoo) intones portentous statements about leaving the past behind, while Susie looks puzzled and worried and wide-eyed and complains, quite fairly, that she doesn’t know how to translate that into action.
A major flaw in either the script or the editing is the abbreviated romance that is interrupted by Susie’s death. Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie) is the senior student who is Susie’s love interest. Early in the movie, Susie narrates her passion for him but complains that he doesn’t know she exists. Immediately afterward by her school locker, Singh asks her out and they are about to kiss when an altercation down the hall prevents it. There is a lack of development and a lack of subtlety here that makes the romance and Ray’s later protracted mourning entirely unconvincing.
Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz may be the best part of the film. They are convincing as the bereaved parents.
Stephanie Zacharek, of Salon.com, viewed the film as being “an expensive-looking mess that fails to capture the mood, and the poetry, of its source material” because of “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.”
Maybe you just can’t make the afterlife concrete without being heavy-handed. Had Jackson stuck to the bones (sorry) of the story, he could have done a decent job.