Watching Peter Jackson’s new adaptation of the bestselling 2002 novel The Lovely Bones in Leicester Square, mere hours before it would enjoy a Royal Premiere, provided an irresistible opportunity to speculate on what possible reasons could have led to it being selected for such an honour. Not just because it seems an unlikely choice — did someone tell Prince Charles that although he was scoring well with environmentalist groups, he needed to seem more “up” on films dealing with child murder? — but also, perhaps more pertinently, because it’s so boring that preventing one’s mind from wandering would have felt like a form of masochism. What’s unusual, though — even interesting — is that for such a dud, there are a surprising number of fine performances and some direction from Jackson which is perfectly competent, albeit slightly staid.
Saoirse Ronan stars as fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon, whose life is cut short by serial killer neighbour George Harvey ( a marvellous Stanley Tucci). Undeterred, she continues narrating the story of her life — well, her family’s life — from an inbetween world that she cannot leave and move on to heaven proper until she has — as Americans are so prone to say — achieved closure. This supernatural element is, remarkably, played down in favour of the domestic drama that Susie left behind — chiefly that between Mum (Rachel Weisz), Dad (Mark Wahlberg), and Grandma (Susan Sarandon) — and the attempts to uncover Susie’s killer by Detective Fenerman (Michael Imperioli).
Pre-release, a number of critics voiced concerns about how a story whose central event is the rape and murder of a young girl could be transformed into PG-friendly family material. Well, it turns out that shouldn’t have been their worry: a far greater problem transpires to be, how can a book constructed entirely out of first person narrative by a character who takes no part in the events she describes be transformed into a film that does anything but drag on interminably? I don’t have a satisfactory answer to this question, and evidently, neither does Jackson nor writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.
Their version of a novel that, although not without its detractors, still can’t be described as anything but gripping, suffers from a profoundly damaging overuse of voiceover which halts the action to the speed of an audiobook being read by Robert Peston. Once she’s been offed, Ronan — who in every other respect gives a nicely understated, honest performance — can’t help but reflect on every change in circumstance happening down on Earth, and scenes which could otherwise be dynamic are reduced to a funereal dirge.
And this really is a shame, because if it weren’t for such poor pacing, a film of The Lovely Bones would hold the promise of exceeding the merits of its source by far. Weisz, Wahlberg and Sarandon all do their very bests, and their efforts are properly admirable. Sarandon, who at some point in the last few years apparently graduated to playing grandmothers, plays Weisz’s mother with a canny mix of comic bravado and slightly hidden emotional vulnerability, and her relatively few moments on screen are funny and rewarding. I briefly wondered whether Wahlberg might resort to the tough-guy action hero figure audiences have become used to seeing him portray, but he is nicely restrained and looks oddly comfortable doing middle-aged parenthood on screen.
The scenes in Susie’s version of pseudo-purgatory — a mish-mash of psychedelic ’70s montage and large-scale nature landscapes — might have felt spectacular if they had come from anyone other than Jackson, from whom they just seem rather lazily rendered, and quite possibly made up of unused Lord of the Rings footage. More than anything, though, The Lovely Bones only feels disappointing: a squandered opportunity by Jackson; occasionally reminiscent in tone of his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, but vastly inferior to that picture, and without any obvious reasons — other than sentimentality — compelling enough to explain its existence.