Bones can be dry. They can be brittle, bloody or broken. But they are very rarely lovely.
The title of Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel is a flight of fancy, a turn of phrase crafted by its charmingly articulate but very dead 14-yearold narrator Susie Salmon (Saorise Ronan), the rape/murder victim of a suburban paedophile in ’70s Pennsylvania.
“These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence, the connections sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent, that happened after I was gone,” she whispers while watching the fallout of her death from heaven. It’s a line that doesn’t make much sense – but then not a lot in this woolly, hamstrung movie does.
No one ever said that adapting Sebold’s novel, an Oprah favourite that chimed with 10m Americans looking for spiritual succour, was going to be easy. Brit helmer Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar), who dropped out early, recalls studio concern over the then-unpublished novel’s darkness. Then, after it became a hit, Peter Jackson stepped up instead; his superb Heavenly Creatures, which artfully blended fantasy and true crime, looked like it could serve as a dry run.
There’s certainly no faulting his filmmaking: this is a consummately polished piece of celluloid that lushly recreates the ’70s. Where it falls down is in its cloying fluffiness. Ostensibly a story of tragedy, grief and loss, The Lovely Bones is more interested in crafting a CG heaven for its ethereal heroine (Ronan, excellent) that’s all Brian Eno music, Salvador Dali trompe l’oeil and New Age mysticism. Forget the horror, it whispers, let’s concentrate on the positives of being raped and murdered by a kiddie fiddler in a subterranean bunker before you’ve even had your first kiss... The unfortunate side effect is that this tale of child molestation comes across as fluffy and saccharine.
It also strips Sebold’s bones of some of their meat: the central violence is muted into a footnote and Stanley Tucci’s paedo becomes a creepy caricature rather than a fleshed-out character, his impossibly intricate murder device borderline ludicrous when transposed from page to screen. The affair between Susie’s mother (Rachel Weisz) and the homicide detective on the case has also been left on the cutting room floor, a decision that detracts from the focus on the living and their awkward expressions of grief.
Instead we’re left with just plain awkwardness as a woefully miscast Mark Wahlberg proves unable to convince as either bereaved dad or (Christ alive!) an accountant.
Fortunately, Ronan’s fragile, highly-praised performance holds the movie together by a thread, her vulnerable Susie a vision of innocence ruined. But not even her outstanding turn can distract from the nagging realisation that The Lovely Bones is simply too lovely for its own good.
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