One of the films from recent years that has stuck with me is Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. I was once talking to a work colleague about it, describing it as the ‘loveliest film about child murder’. I’m not too sure how many lovely child murder films there are, but if so The Lovely Bones will top the list of being simultaneously, tragic and grotesque and uplifting and beautiful.
The story is narrated by the murder victim, Susie Salman, and wonderfully constructed to fit with the time of the story, 1970s suburban America. My inner fashionista is in awe of the clothes, the costume and hair so considered. The scenery, not drab and dull, which as the film progresses you soon realise, drab and dull is not Jackson’s vision.
In a similar way to To Kill a Mockingbird, our young female narrator protects us from the truly horrific events in the film, the deviant sexual undertones of Susie’s murder, her parents who are unable to cope and subsequent breakdown of all the relationships in the family. If we were to view these events as an outsider we might find them too harrowing to process. But Susie’s narration creates a barrier, a naïve representation of one of the ugliest afflictions of humanity. It’s still uncomfortable viewing when Susie is first invited into George’s underground den. Stanley Tucci plays what is arguably a completely undesirable role well, he is terrifying and menacing. All the violence occurs off screen, which is totally understandable. The only violent death is George’s at the end, serving as some sort of retribution.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Lovely Bones, whilst it can obviously never be realistic in it’s representation of the afterlife and connection with the living, it gives a voice to a murder victim. Right before Susie is murdered, she is asked out on a date by Ray, a handsome British senior from her school. In a previous discussion with her grandmother (Susan Sarandon) she’s encouraged to kiss him and date him, Susie herself is shown to be stroppy, tempestuous (when her mother and father refuse to develop all of her film from her camera, she accuses them of stifling her creativity and dreams) a typical teenager. Were aware, she’s 14, obviously mid-puberty, this emphasises the wealth of experience Susie is yet to have, which makes her murder all the more poignant. One of the most common traits of murder in any film, the victim is rarely the centre of the story, rarely does the victim have a voice. Susie is able to communicate how upset and devastated she is when she is murdered. The effect her murder has on all those around her becomes more prominent as she responds to them in death.
The heaven sequences which Susie experiences are beautiful, brightly coloured, lush and bursting full of life. Jackson’s vision of heaven is wonderful, if a little eccentric. They are camp and kitsch, reminiscent of the scenery in the animated movie The BFG, occasionally bordering on tacky, in all probability a very accurate representation of what heaven would be for a teenage girl.
The most touching of the relationships in the film is that between Susie and her father Jack, Mark Wahlberg. Departing from his usual roles, he plays a gentle, soft loving father. Jack decides early on to stay true to his promise to develop Susie’s films, this also coincides with his obsession with solving Susie’s murder. The disintegration of the Salman family is played out, we are privy to all details of this crime, the crime itself, the feelings of the victim, the aftermath and impact on the family unit. The other character who breaks the darkness at the centre of this film is Susan Sarandon, Susie’s grandmother, who is camp, glamorous and ballsy. The dynamic of each character is rich and fulfilling. No character is left neglected, even Ray who features very little in the film. Even he is memorable.
I really love The Lovely Bones, it’s got attitude, moments of black comedy, underpinned by a tragic and touching story. It’s a beautifully made film, that leaves you feeling hopeful and bright.