Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, based upon the novel by Alice Sebold, which I have only read once and don't recall much about, other than an impression that it was pretty good (probably a bit better than the film and worth rereading), is a straightforward story about parents and children, good and evil, life and death, simple happiness and equally simple tragedy. It's a good movie, even when it threatens to stray away off into some sappy What Dreams May Come territory. But, in fact, it manages to stay far enough away from a calamity like that to maintain its dramatic integrity. Also, it has better effects.
Saoirse Ronan (very good in Atonement as well as here) plays Susie Salmon, a fairly typical, dreamy teenager who (no spoilers) early on meets a sad fate at the hands of a violent, scheming predator of a neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci, Oscar-nominated in a good performance which is not actually his best of the year, or career, certainly).
From there Susie watches over her family, and her killer, in a sort of special-effects purgatory in which she contemplates the past and present omnisciently, though the construction of the story gives the impression that she's still in anticipation of the future, like everyone else. Here she must come to terms with her own life and death to find her way onward.
The special effects used to create this world are impressive, if perhaps a bit too typical symbolically of past-life worlds we've seen or encountered fictionally before. Still, it's contemplative, beautiful and significantly linked to the rest of the film.
But the most powerful effect, as Ingmar Bergman or I could have told you it should be, is Susie's face. Ronan is perfectly cast as Susie, and her face is the canvas upon which the most important pictures are painted, illuminated by her emotions, a sense of innocence which does not become cloying, and her wide, striking blue eyes.
The rest of the actors do a good job as well, but without the constant return to Ronan's visage for reactions to events and contemplation of violence, death, love, the film would fail. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz are as good as they've ever been as Susie's parents, especially Weisz. As Jack Salmon, Wahlberg is haunted and nearly destroyed by his daughter's death, consumed by details, clues, suspicions. Weisz's reaction as Abigail is a self-protective detachment, played perfectly.
Rose McIver as Lindsey, Susie's sister, then, walks the line between her two parents' paths ably. Susan Sarandon plays Weisz's mother Lynn with humor and determination. And Michael Imperioli plays Len Fenerman, the lead investigator in Susie's murder, with palpable heart, sympathy and growing frustration.
There's a subplot with a psychic which doesn't really go much of anywhere, but it doesn't detract from the main parts of the tale, and its intersection with a boy who was Susie's first crush (Ray Singh) yields some plot resonance to almost justify it.
The Lovely Bones is not Peter Jackson's best movie, that would still have to be Heavenly Creatures, Meet the Feebles or one of the Lord of the Rings movies (I've only seen the first--I know, heresy), but strong performances from Ronan, McIver, Tucci, Weisz, Sarandon, Imperioli and Wahlberg, a solid story, and good special effects combined with simple, powerful imagery make it a cut above, if not great.
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