The Lovely Bones

The Herald: February 2010

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The Lovely Bones

Directed by Peter Jackson

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarrandon, Nikki SooHoo, Stanley Tucci, Rose McIver, Reece Ritchie, Michael Imperioli

‘The Lovely Bones’ is set in the idyllic American suburbia of 1973. As the film’s protagonist Suzie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) says, “This was before missing kids started appearing on milk cartons, over feature stories on the daily news. It was back when people believed things like that didn’t happen.” At age fourteen, Suzie is lured into a damp, candle-lit alcove created under the earth of a corn-field near her school. In a tragic reworking of the Persephone myth, Suzie’s murderer (Stanley Tucci) coaxes her into the ‘club-house’ he has created for children in the neighbourhood – a dark realm of nooks and crannies crowded with Coke bottles, Archie comics, votives and stuffed animals.

Suzie’s world is split into two parts – she is cast into purgatory, a place of limbo that takes its visual cues from Earth, where she can witness the effect of her murder on her family. Her two worlds seep into one another as she struggles to live in the ‘in-between’, guided by a girl who takes the moniker Holly Golightly (Nikki SooHoo). Director Peter Jackson’s ‘Heaven’ is a place of lush, golden corn-fields that give way to murky swamps, snow-capped mountains, rainbows and enormous roses that bloom underwater. This is not a Heaven of angels, tinkling chimes and iridescent waterfalls; the landscape is a mirror of Suzie’s emotions – we are pitched into darkness and rain, for example, when Suzie witnesses her sister’s first kiss, a pleasure she will never experience. Jackson’s knack for visual trickery and CGI is abundant in this film and fleshes out the mercurial, fantastical land of stasis that Suzie is trapped in.

A meditation on death and its aftermath, the film is poignant in its depiction of Suzie’s attempt to come to terms with being ‘the lost girl’ and her family’s grief and growing frustration with the authorities. In a telling scene, a detective asks Suzie’s mother (Rachel Weisz), “Is this the first time she’s run away?”, adamant that he is faced with the case of disturbed teenager who has escaped the confines of a troubled family life. Suzie’s father (Mark Wahlberg) is guided by a tenuous, ESP-like connection to his missing daughter, and he remains unable to give up on finding her or bringing her murderer to justice, even as the authorities and his wife abandon him.

Suzie’s reflections on her situation can often be cloying and sentimental. However, they perfectly chart the emotional meter of a fourteen year old who has previously mulled over the “length of (her crushes) eyelashes” and declared to her parents that “it’s a crime to be creative in this family.” It is in the interplay between sound, vision and performance that we experience the full measure of Suzie’s loss and realize the cruelty of the crime that colours the lives of all who knew her. Brian Eno, recognized widely as the maestro of ambient music, collaborates with Jackson on the film, his lush soundtrack unbearably ratcheting up the tension as Suzie’s father and sister are lost in a vortex of obsession, determined to find her murderer. Every sound emitted in the film works to weave this web of suspense and drama – from the rustling of a corn-field to the rasp of paper in a nail-bitingly tense scene. Eno’s soundtrack is the perfect complement to Jackson’s visualization of Suzie’s limbo, allowing the film to fluidly straddle two worlds. Saoirse Ronan’s stand-out performance as an exuberant teenager who is forced to deal with the aftermath of her murder lies at the heart of a story that deals with a family’s desperate attempts to deal with loss and guilt.

‘The Lovely Bones’ is based on the 2002 novel of the same name, by Alice Sebold. As with most adaptations of widely popular texts, the film has faced criticism for its departures from the novel. However, it is the film’s treatment of a magical, surreal world with the story of an immeasurable loss that stands out.