Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Consideration of The Lovely Bones

I grew up in Parry Sound in the 1960s. I was part of a big pack of kids who would play outside until after dark throughout the summer, completely unconcerned about our safety, not oblivious to it, just unconcerned. However, we also all knew to 'stay away from Johnnie'. Johnnie was probably a pedophile. He was a man in his forties who lived alone in a big house up the street from our home. We would always see him walking quickly through our neighbourhood, a hand always in his pocket, watching the kids as we played. We nicknamed him Johnnie Walker (no offense to the fine scotch producers). We just all knew to stay away from him. Creepy and weird, he certainly was, yet our parents were seemingly oblivious to him and what he might be, but we weren't. Yet we sure as hell never told our parents about him. We wanted to be able to play unfettered. Granted, he didn't, that we know of, ever actually act on his obvious compulsions, so the light of adult suspicion was never cast upon him. These reflections came to mind as I watched Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, because there is a major character in the film that reminded me of Johnnie.

After the critical drubbing the film took in the US upon its release last December, I was very surprised by how much I liked the first 45 to 60 minutes. Jackson seemed to be getting so much right. Maybe he was going to pull it off. Alas, he didn't. And I blame the novel. Since I would watch anything Jackson chose to direct, when I heard this would be his next film after the underrated King Kong, I decided to read the source novel. The notion of loss and moving beyond it was reasonably well-handled, but I was generally disappointed by Alice Sebold's critically acclaimed novel. I found it repetitive, filled to busting with first-person narration, loaded with irritating/cliché-ridden characters (such as the grandmother - more later) and a denouement that was very unsatisfying. I thought, 'how is he going to make a film out of this?' The answer is, unless Jackson tore it apart and only used the basic premise, he couldn't. Jackson has shown a willingness to muck with 'sacred texts' in the past such as he did in his masterful Lord of the Rings movies. He was willing to risk the wrath of the fans by eliminating completely pointless characters such as Tom Bombadil. With The Lovely Bones, he seemed unwilling to risk a similar wrath from the fans and, perhaps, Sebold.

And yet, for the first half, it looked like he might pull it off.

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, pronounced 'SUR-shah row-NAN') is a happy, rambunctious 14-year-old growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania in the 1970s. Susie narrates the film, and after a ten-minute intro that establishes the characters and place, she tells us that she was soon to be raped and murdered by a pedophilic neighbour, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). She narrates the rest of the film from 'the in-between', a CGIed landscape that is neither heaven nor earth. It is a dreamscape/surrealist landscape that she describes as 'her heaven', but it's not THE heaven. Back on earth, the Salmon family is blown apart by the killing: father Jack Salmon (a weak Mark Wahlberg -- it would have been interesting to see what Ryan Gosling would have brought to the role, but he quit shortly before production began) keeps running to the police with dead-end leads, mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) retreats figuratively and literally from the family, daughter Lindsey (Rose McIver) just tries to get on with her life, and brother Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale), um, seems to be forgotten by Jackson. And George Harvey? He remains in the neighbourhood, undiscovered.

Stanley Tucci as Harvey.

Early critics have attacked the film because Tucci plays Harvey in such a creepy manner, that any 'moron' could figure out he was the guilty party. I didn't have an issue with his interpretation. Reality is frequently different, as I explained at the start. One of the things Jackson gets so right in that first hour is his decision to not show the actual rape and murder. Again, some early critics attacked him for not showing it. His build up and payoff was deeply disturbing enough. I for one didn't need to see a young girl attacked by a pedophile. Jackson's lead up and my own imagination did the job fine, thank you. Jackson gets the destruction of the family just right too. In one nicely staged sequence, a despairing Jack, whose hobby is building ships-in-a-bottle, smashes all the ships. Intercut with this, is how Susie sees this in her personal heaven. The broken ships-in-a-bottle appear as life-sized wrecks crashing onto a hyper-real seashore.

The sense of grief and unrelieved despair envelopes the family. The happy family from the beginning is quickly overwhelmed by tragedy and loss. It all works well, even most of the cross-cutting between Pennsylvania and Susie's personal heaven (though some of the CGI looks like the Cottonelle commercials from the 1970s). And then the wheels fall off. By being unwilling or unable to escape the narrative grip of Sebold's novel, Jackson begins to spin his tires. One character that he should have done a 'Tom Bombardil' to was Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon). In the novel, and the film, she's a loud, hard-drinking, heavy smoking blowhard who tries to take control of the family. It was a terribly written character in the novel and it is equally bad in the film. An already unplayable character is not helped by Sarandon’s awful performance. Weisz's character is sorely missed when she, as she also does in the novel, runs away to California to 'find herself'. Her disappearance leaves us with comic-relief granny, paranoid Jack and spunky Lindsay. And, of course, the ever-present George, with Susie in her heaven.

The most egregious moment comes when Jackson decides to put some levity into the film by having Granny and Buckley (in one of his few scenes in the latter half of film) have 'fun' doing household chores. The quick-cut comedy moments include granny battling the overflowing-with-suds clothes washer, the white people dancing in the kitchen scene...need I go on? It doesn't all go to hell though. Saoirse Ronan is really great as Susie. And Rose McIver has some lovely moments near the end when she is finally able to let go of her departed sister (however, by casting the 21-year-old McIver as Susie's 'younger' sister is a bit distracting - in the early sequences she clearly looks older than Saoirse). The ability to say goodbye and yet never forget is reasonably well-handled.

I remember when I was 6 years old and my beloved grandfather passed away. A few nights after his funeral, I had a dream where I was walking through a white room filled with gurneys containing bodies covered with sheets. Yet within the dream, I wasn't scared. I walked down the row of gurneys until I came to the last one. The body on the gurney sat up, the sheet fell off and there was my grandfather looking at me. He smiled and said 'it's alright; it's okay'. From that moment onwards I was okay. Jackson does manage to achieve moments like this at the end that almost work, but he is betrayed ultimately by his slavish devotion to the weak source novel. And did he really have to use the last sentence from the novel? The idea worked in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ("Well, I'm back"), but here Sebold's final line carries no world-weary resonance, rather it sounds like a reject from a greeting card. I leave it to you to find out what it is.

--David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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