Long before he became the billion-dollar master of Middle Earth blockbusters, Peter Jackson made a small masterpiece called Heavenly Creatures that brilliantly captured every ounce of the confusion, energy, sex and horror of adolescence in a dazzling, sustained burst of visual invention. Here he retraces that hallowed ground, adapting Alice Sebold's nearly unfilmable surprise bestseller about a murdered teenager observing the aftermath of her own death from heaven, and morphing it into an overstuffed, but uncommonly intimate and exquisite fantasy.
The heroine is young Susie Salmon, played with ethereal grace and smarts by Saoirse Ronan (Atonement), a bright, gawky but otherwise normal '70s suburban teen. Her world revolves around her new camera, homework, friends, the mall, and an all-consuming crush on a dashing older boy. All of those things are cruelly stolen from her one day when she takes a shortcut home through a cornfield, where an unassuming neighbor (Stanley Tucci) lures her into a bunker, and she descends down into the pit of hell. From that point on Susie becomes a ghostly observer, watching over her ruined family, and trying to gently nudge them to the truth from beyond. Jackson has the audacity to render exactly what a still-innocent girl's heaven might be, a shimmering realm of lush cascading hills, quaint gazebos and twinkling rainbows, that looks like a million Trapper Keeper scribbles come alive.
Back on earth, Jackson applies his masterful eye, not just to CGI dreamscapes, but to an exhaustingly detailed 1973 setting, not some cheap disco glitter backdrop, but an era perfectly re-created, down to the tiniest detail. Susie's dad (Mark Wahlberg) goes into amateur detective mode, pacing holes in the shag carpet and obsessing over clues and suspect lists. Her shattered mom (Rachel Weisz) retreats completely. Susan Sarandon sweeps in as a wild, funny, chain-smoking grandmother, who struggles to hold the pieces together.
Jackson also has some trouble nailing down a premise that mixes thriller, coming-of-age nostalgia, dark comedy and spirituality.
There are some real problems; for all his skill, Jackson can't quite smooth some of the lagging tonal issues, as he awkwardly fuses the mechanical pace of a thriller with a languid family drama. The supporting characters suffer dearly from timeline compression, some disappearing for large chunks of plot, or vanishing altogether, in favor of more scenery-chewing close-ups of Tucci sweating it out. Then comes the almost unbearable tension of waiting to see this scumbag receive his punishment, and a heart-stopping sequence as Susie's younger sister (Rose McIver) hunts for evidence in the killer's house.
Some admirers of the novel may be baffled at the way Jackson mostly sidesteps the delicate issue of rape, merely hinting at horrors made shockingly explicit in the text, but it's a clever move; what works on the page can be deadly on screen. Jackson eventually chooses the lyrical over the brutal truth, and it's all almost too big and rich and lush to be absorbed in one sitting. The Lovely Bones is a pure, visceral experience that whisks us through all the stages of grief, from shock to anger, to denial, bargaining and finally to a beautiful, lasting peace. When it's over there's relief, but also loss.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.