Saoirse Ronan, the wide-eyed young witness of Atonement, anchors The Lovely Bones – although “anchor” is far too rugged a term for the performance she gives. With her wispy hair, translucent skin and tide-pool eyes, she’s so ethereal there are scenes in which she barely exists.
The entire movie has that sort of immaterial weightlessness, which is unusual given it’s a tragic drama hinging on the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. There is tension here, but no real horror – the movie too easily drifts in and out of your consciousness.
Ronan plays Susie Salmon, whose story begins, really, after her death. From a gauzy afterlife referred to as “the in between,” Susie watches over her devastated family and struggles to find a way back to them.
In Alice Sebold’s 2002 bestseller on which the movie is based, the story is narrated by Susie. Director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) understandably jettisons much of that in an attempt to be more cinematic – to show rather than tell – but I wonder, not having read the book, if he hasn’t lost something along the way. The Lovely Bones is visual, to be sure, but it’s also oddly inert. It could use less painterly imagery and more of a voice.
That said, Jackson’s “in between” is an often dazzling dreamscape, a pastel neverland that incorporates certain key locations from Susie’s life – a cornfield, a gazebo – and plops them into undulating vistas. After awhile, though, these sequences begin to blend together, like the pale blues, pinks and yellows that make up the in between’s sky.
The Lovely Bones, ironically, is too soft and pretty. In narrative terms, it’s an awful story triggered by an act of heinous violence. Yet the film doesn’t really punch you in the chest. It’s a murder drama made from cotton candy.