Heaven is hard. No, I'm not making a religious point about the difficulty of living a life worthy of a heavenly ascent. I'll leave that to the theologians. I'm talking about the depiction of heaven in film. Some have gone with a simple clouds-and-halos approach. Others, like the misbegotten What Dreams May Come, have gone for a vast technicolor dreamscape. Either way, it's a risk. And maybe that's why so many people said that The Lovely Bones was unfilmable.
Alice Sebold's novel is narrated from above by 14-year-old Susie Salmon (played in the film by Saoirse Ronan), who matter-of-factly tells us the story of her own murder and its effect on her family, especially her father, who obsessively pursues the killer.
Director Peter Jackson captures the wistful quality of the novel-the innocence of early '70s (a time before "milk carton photos and public service announcements"); the heady rush of first love (Susie is besotted by the poetry-spouting new boy in school); the happy clutter of a well-adjusted family—and it makes the intrusion of death and perversity all the more jarring.
Stanley Tucci, almost unrecognizable in thinning sandy hair and a mustache, plays the child molester and murderer. And he does so brilliantly, showing the character's studied casualness; his strained attempts to seem harmless and chummy. Yes, the scenes where he lures Susie to his underground lair, "a cool place for kids to hang out" are unsettling-all the more so, because we know what's coming-but Jackson never takes it too far. (Indeed, some critics have said he didn't take it far enough.)
As Susie's grandmother, a chain smoking, hard-drinking ball of gumption who tries to rouse the family from their gloom, Susan Sarandon seems to arrive from another movie altogether (it's like her long-lost audition reel for Running With Scissors). But both Rachel Weisz, as the benumbed mother, and Mark Wahlberg, as the manic dad, do solid work.
Still, the film really belongs to young Saoirse Ronan, who proves that the Oscar nomination she earned for Atonementwas no fluke. The scene where Susie gets lured into the killer's den—we see Susie's childlike curiosity, followed by a nagging sense that something isn't quite right, then nervous relief as she tries to brush away her fears, and, finally, genuine terror-is a deft piece of silent acting.
But you can't make The Lovely Bones without doing the heaven stuff, can you? Because, when Susie isn’t telling us about her murder and her family, she’s telling us about “her heaven”—a place she goes before she can ascend to the real deal. Jackson depicts it as a teenage fantasy come to life—butterflies and giant blooming flowers and long flowing gowns—which I'm sure is the point, but that doesn't make it any less cheesy. It's jarring-and also seems show-offy, like the director couldn't quite shed all the neato CGI tricks he picked up during the Lord of the Rings.
I admire Jackson for attempting to show us the whole book, in all its messy glory. As a dreamlike horror film of innocence interrupted, The Lovely Bones is a near masterpiece. But in this case, heaven definitely should've waited.