Susie, who ruminates from a nether-worldly existence, later deemed as the 'in-between' by her little brother, remembers small, trifling details from her childhood. Like being too small to look over the table or worrying about a lonely penguin in a snow globe. “Don't worry kiddo,” says her father played by Mark Wahlberg, “(the penguin) has a nice life. He lives in a perfect world”. He shakes the globe and the faux snow runs wild. He is, however, unaware of the penguin's hollowed existence; or that his daughter will also share a similar, hollowed fate.
One part of The Lovely Bones, which deals with the rape, murder and the dismemberment of a 14-year-old Susie Salmon, succeeds in creating a complex and effective structure around this grim tragedy without indulging in graphic violence, voyeurism or implied gruesomeness. The other part of the story is about Susie's stranded soul in a strange and wondrous wonderland and the emotional upheaval of the family.
Peter Jackson, the director, producer and one of the writers of The Lovely Bones (the others being Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) shifts between multiple story-threads and themes (a serial-killer thriller, family grieving and teenage heartache). Mr Jackson tries too hard to accommodate plot-points from the original novel by Alice Sebold. What he succeeds in doing is creating a hodgepodge of events that chew up too much screen-time and, on certain occasions, present awkward emotional distance to the viewers, never mind themselves.
There are two characters that are wasted. One is Rachel Weisz, Susie's mother, who deserts the film half-way without compelling reason. The second is her mother, a chain-smoking Susan Sarandon, who supplies infrequent and out-of-place dabs of comedy.
Replacing a mother's trauma and bond is Mark Wahlberg's Jack Salmon, who wrestles with agony over the death of his daughter. Susie's little sister, Lindsey Salmon played by the attention-grabbing Rose McIver, is the other anchor of the film who is also spiritually connected to her sister - there is a wonderful scene where Lindsay's blossoming womanhood becomes both a reason for tearful joy and tenderly-aching sorrow for Susie. Saoirse Ronan plays Susie with sparkling vivaciousness. She singlehandedly captivates the entire long-drawn experience of The Lovely Bones into a believable journey of a 14-year-old-dead girl, stranded in world that reflects her feelings in drastic visual transformations.
The Lovely Bones sometimes echoes Heavenly Creatures on its minimalist approach. Heavenly Creatures, an early Peter Jackson film about girlhood crushes which lead to murder (staring a debutante Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey) was raw and without heavy passages of ethereal fantasy.
The fantasy in The Lovely Bones is about abstract season-shifting topography, where hillsides slide away and a never-ending world becomes a spherical, almost ball-like, topiary plane, ringing to the tune of a 1970s rock album. Like Jodie Foster's childhood drawings from Contact, which become the meeting platform for the aliens and the humans, the 'in-between' world in The Lovely Bones is like a child's drawing.
There are no fantastic enemies lurking in the film. The low-key menace here is a reclusive, bespectacled (and fear-provoking) Stanley Tucci, as George Harvey, whose proclivity includes pruning his rose bushes, crafting dollhouses and the rape and murder of young women. Mr Jackson makes it hard to like The Lovely Bones unconditionally. He also makes it impossible to hate it.
The film is Rated PG13. It features a touching story that needs a second, tighter, screenplay draft. The Lovely Bones stars Saoirse Ronan, Stanley Tucci, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon.