Peter Jackson fans hoping that the visionary director would recapture the magic that made Heavenly Creatures an instant classic are best advised to put their expectations in check before watching his adaptation of Alice Sebold's best-seller. However, while this gorgeously surreal drama never quite soars to the emotionally delirious heights of the film that established Jackson as a "serious" director, it does have some interesting things to say about how we all deal with grief in different ways, and offers a beautiful and unique vision of the afterworld.
Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is just experiencing the pangs of first love when she's viciously murdered by her neighbor Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a predatory wolf with a deceptively placid and normal exterior. As her family's relationships slowly begin to deteriorate while they struggle to make sense of their loss, Susie bravely attempts to find her footing in the hereafter. Meanwhile, down on earth, Mr. Harvey is feeling confident that he's covered his tracks well enough to get away with the crime, and begins honing in on his next victim -- Susie's younger sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver), who's beginning to suspect that he's not the harmless suburbanite he portrays himself to be.
Adapting The Lovely Bones for the screen presents a sizable challenge; striking just the right balance between the fantastic and the tragic is no simple task, especially when you're dealing with a topic as sensitive as the murder of a young child and her attempts to process what's happened to her from another dimensional plane. Given his previous success with both the aforementioned Heavenly Creatures and the hugely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, it certainly would have seemed that Jackson was the ideal man for the job, though not everything that he and fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens try to accomplish here works. There's a distinct emotional honesty in both the screenplay and the performances -- especially that of relative newcomer Ronan, who portrays her character's conflicting senses of wonder and loss with remarkable grace -- though it's the awkward balance of events in the two separate planes of reality that ultimately prevents the film from being entirely effective. The main problem is that Jackson shifts his focus to special effects when he should have been concentrating on character, a misstep that ultimately distracts from the story rather than enhancing it. By the time Lindsey's suspicions lead her directly into the monster's lair, the screenwriters don't seem sure whether they want to tell a tale of grief with a twist of magic realism, or a suburban suspense yarn detailing the quest to find a killer.
But just because The Lovely Bones is flawed doesn't make it a failure. Anyone who has suffered a tragic loss in the family knows that we each processes grief in our own way, and the time we spend with the Salmons following Susie's untimely death reveals that despite sporting an irregular beat, the film's heart is still in the right place. It's in these scenes that Mark Wahlberg gets to shine as each member of his family withdraws into their own private sorrows, but it's ultimately Susan Sarandon who steals the show. Her portrayal of the boozy, free-spirited grandmother who manages to offer poignant insight even while raiding the cabinets for cooking sherry imbues the film with a sense of levity that keeps it from becoming overly maudlin, and gives us an idea of where Susie's younger sister, Lindsey, gets her strength from. Tucci, all squirrelly cheeks and bad comb-over, is downright chilling in the role of the deceptively middling neighbor with a compulsion for murder. Still, it's young Ronan who shoulders most of the story's dramatic weight; her quest for understanding in the afterworld affords us the rare opportunity to peer into the thoughts of an unusually perceptive young girl who's struggling to balance her hunger for justice with the grief that serves as her spiritual anchor to another life.
If there's one thing The Lovely Bones has in abundance, it's ambition -- to tell a story that deals with a powerful universal truth, to stimulate our sense of wonder by dazzling us with vivid special effects, and to translate an author's work to the screen without losing the essence of her story. Alas, ambition and restraint are two opposing forces that are difficult to synthesize, and the The Lovely Bones is an example of a film where a little restraint would have gone a long way. Of course, the same could have been said about Jackson's previous film, the hulking, unwieldy remake of King Kong, and anyone familiar with Jackson's early work will immediately contest that it's precisely the director's lack thereof that helped to launch his career in the first place. Maturity and restraint may well go hand in hand for aging filmmakers such as Jackson, though it's the director's keen eye for sumptuous visuals and unique approach to characterization that keeps his loyal fans coming back for more. The Lovely Bones has both of those things in abundance; it simply lacks the connective tissue required to bring them together as a cohesive whole.