My notes on The Lovely Bones.It’s increasingly difficult to remember the Peter Jackson who directed Bad Taste, Braindead and Meet the Feebles. Having secured his position in box office records and an Oscar for his shelf with the Lord of the Rings films, he now has the pick of projects and gets to make expensive, yet deeply personal movies. After King Kong, a love letter to a childhood idol, he picked up Alice Sebold’s well-liked posthumous fantasy novel – which presents real difficulties for the adapter, not all negotiated well here – and turned in something which, for all its bursts of big production value CGI, could be a missing link between Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners. Again, we have a small town setting, sinisterly murderous undercurrents, girlish fantasy, broken families, period detail (it’s 1974) and a wistful view of the afterlife. It has a strong lead performance from Saoirse Ronan, whose slightly overlapping front teeth reveal that she’s not an American, and a genuinely inspired, creepy-comic turn from Stanley Tucci, who plays an appalling sexual serial killer as a Peter Sellers lookalike with a methodical approach (he constructs lairs and hides and killing rooms for his specific targets). It also has a black comedy streak embodied in a runaway turn from Susan Sarandon as a drunken grandmother with a perpetual cigarette and an unhelpful remark for all occasions and a vision of the afterlife that suggests the mindscape of Paperhouse crossed with the visions of What Dreams May Come – or even the tiny planet of The Little Prince.
Susie Salmon (Ronan) narrates: she’s a fourteen-year-old with a doting Dad (Mark Wahlburg, channeling Kevin Bacon) and Mom (Rachel Weisz), a younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver), a crush on a long-lashed poetic boy, and an aura which attracts seething neighbour George Harvey (Tucci), who has built an underground clubhouse in a cornfield (complete with board games, toys, coca-cola and other goodies) just to lure ‘the Salmon girl’ into. Susie is murdered and stuffed in a safe in George’s basement, and her family cracks up – as the local cop (Michael Imperioli) fails to make headway, and Susie’s father takes to obsessively suspecting folks to such a degree that when he (and the creeped-out sister) hit on the real culprit it’s too late to get anything done. All the while, Susie loiters and watches on, accompanied sometimes by another dead girl – and wandering about a fantastical landscape, where the bottled ships in her father’s collection founder on rocky shores, leaves become birds and fly from a significant tree and trompe l’oeuil tricks evoke the fantasyworld created by the killers in Heavenly Creatures rather than the blunter ghostlife of The Frighteners. The problem is that Susie is apart from the action, and indeed disappears for long stretches: when Lindsey attracts George’s attention and becomes a possible next victim and does Nancy Drew housebreaking and clue-searching in the boogeyman’s house, Susie can do nothing. It’s suggested the ghost can slightly affect reality, dropping a fatal icicle on her killer, but not enough to move the plot on: which makes for a frustrating skewing of priorities that spills over to the living people, in an annoying stretch when Lindsey could be handing over vital evidence but is suddenly distracted by another plot strand about her parents’ feelings.