The long awaited film from "Lord of the Rings" trilogy director Peter Jackson based on the beloved book by Alice Sebold, "Lovely Bones," is a dark, touching, ambitious and at times uneven film that is so powerful it overcomes its own faults. Jackson delivers a visually stunning film that at times distracts from the core story of the film, which is about dealing with the loss of a child, however the scope and depth of the film is so strong that along with the acting it overcomes its own short comings to create a moving and stirring film. It's hard to say that the film is satisfying only because the story limits it from really being so, a young girl is murdered, you're never going to enjoy watching that except Jackson does it in such a delicate way that the end of the film does become satisfying for the viewer even though it takes a while to get there. Jackson does take you on an emotional ride that will be entertaining, to a degree, and will keep you thinking throughout the film. If you know the story from the book, then you know what is coming but at the same time Jackson's elegant camera work and incredible ability to set a certain mood and tone on film allows you to forget everything you know about the story and become completely enthralled in the moment that is unfolding in front of you.
The film begins beautifully in 1973 and Jackson wonderfully sets the mood of the happy-go-lucky early '70s. The colors are blazing and the music is just right. We are introduced to Susie Salmon, played by "Atonement" actress Saoirse Ronan who gives a brilliant performance as the doomed girl, optimistic about the world even after her demise. Susie's parents are the typical '70s middle-class, suburban family played fantastically by both Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg, respectively. We are also introduced to Susie's Grandmother portrayed by the always-wonderful Susan Sarandon as a "Valley of the Dolls" -like booze guzzling, chain-smoking, and outspoken matriarch. Susie also has a younger sister played equally well by actress Rose Mciver and a younger brother. We are also introduced to the boy Susie longs to be with, Ray and the local outcast, a young girl in Susie's school named Ruth, who may have the ability to see ghosts. The story is narrated by Susie herself, who is aware of her death from the beginning of the film. Susie explains, that this was a time before the public was as aware of missing children and pedophiles and this is evident from the mood that Jackson sets for the film. We are finally introduced to her killer, hidden in vague, out-of-focus shots at first and only shown in full when Susie finally meets him on that fateful night. The killer is played by Stanley Tucci who gives a completely powerhouse performance as the horribly creepy man that will no doubtfully earn him an Oscar nomination this year.
In the aftermath of the unfortunate encounter between Susie and Tucci's character, George Harvey, who is actually a neighbor of the Salmons, the film focuses on Susie's family's grief over their loss. "Sopranos" actor Michael Imperiolli gives possibly his best performance since leaving the hit HBO show as the police detective investigating Susie's death. We soon follow Susie into a new world, not heaven, not hell, but something else, a world in between where she is still able to keep an eye on her family, as well as her killer who is never caught. The world she inhabits is visually remarkable and clearly a world only Jackson could create, living in dream-like places that fit into the paintings in her home or the glass bottled ships that she use to build with her father, allowing her to watch her family grow up as well as spy on the man that killed her.
As Susie watches her siblings grow and she stays the same age, her Father continues to search for his daughter's killer. As Jack Salmon's search begins to boarder on obsessed it puts a burden on his marriage and Abigail, his wife, just can't bare it anymore. As Abigail leaves and her Mother arrives to help with the kids, Detective Freeman urges Jack to move on for his family's sake, but Jack can't as he can still feel Susie's presence around him. As Susie begins to learn more about the new world she inhabits and why she's there she also learns more about her killer and her spirit tries to warn her family of the killer's close proximity. Eventually, Susie's sister finds clues that would lead her to discover the truth, that George Harvey killed her sister and has kept her bones in a safe in his basement all this time. Ultimately the truth is revealed, Harvey gets what he deserves, the Salmon's reunite as a family and Susie's soul is able to move on, but not before she receives the one thing that she has longed for all this time ... a kiss from Ray, in part thanks to Ruth, the only person that can see her.
The bottom line is that this is a hard story to watch unfold and not everyone may connect to it. I'm not sure that it worked for me as well as it might have for others but it certainly was a well-made, well-acted, moving and thought-provoking film that I would recommend to any fan of the book or person interested in seeing it. While the film is slow in some moments Jackson shows that he can direct quiet, dramatic scenes just as well as big battle scenes or CGI. The film may not be a complete home run for Jackson but it definitely is a film he can be proud of and shows a lot of potential for the future. However, it's the acting that really makes "Lovely Bones" worth watching. Rachel Weisz is fantastic as always and Susan Sarandon is absolutely hilarious as the whacky Grandmother. Mark Wahlberg gives one of his best performances to date and shows that he is capable of playing quiet, reserved dramatic characters just as much as big, heroic heroes.
But it is the performances of the two girls, Saoirese Ronan and Rose Mciver, respectively and Stanley Tucci that really make this film work. Mciver gives a great performance as the grieving sister and Ronan's work here is certainly worthy of award season consideration. As is Tucci's work, creating a character who is completely believable yet absolutely disgusting at the same time. Tucci's performance forces you to relate to his character and you end up kind of rooting for him to get away with it as much as you are rooting for him to get caught, which is quite an accomplishment. Not having read the book, I don't know how close Jackson comes to capturing what fans fell in love with but I do believe that the director has delivered a touching and moving film, despite a few minor flaws, that is worth seeing for any serious movie patron.
The Lovely Bones is out February 19, 2009.