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Fantasy and Reality: The Patchy Handling of an Immensely Difficult Subject
on 20 February 2011
Don't get me wrong, Peter Jackson is a fine filmmaker, with a great sense of how to tell a story imbued with dramatic tension and emotion. "The Lovely Bones" misses the mark for me. The first section of the film is treated with a sugar coating of contrived,stereotypical,1970's nostalgia. It's a cleanly glossed depiction of those times and seems rather self conscious in its leanings toward aesthetic appeal. That said, the film in its early stages becomes almost unbearable to watch as the horror of the situation unfolds. It possesses a horrible, harrowing quality which is more than capable of disturbing the viewer and continuing to resonate beyond the viewing of the film in its entirety.
If the film had continued along this path, even with its sugar-dusted realism, it would have been very difficult to watch given the subject matter. What follows is not only a shift in style and treatment, but for me it is the film's greatest weakness. To veer into audacious fantasy and cod-spirituality as it does is almost an insult to the viewer and the subject itself. I don't want to say too much about the subject as there may be readers who don't wish to know anything about the narrative before viewing and too much said will be a spoiler.
Suffice to say, the film, unlike "American Beauty", where the dead protagonist acts as a still living narrator, indulges in an overt depiction of the "afterlife" with fantastical imagery and whimsy. It does not work like "Pan's Labyrinth", where the narrative fantasy is a child's escape from the horrors of reality; a psychological journey, underpinning the actual events. In "The Lovely Bones", the high dose of fantasy is added in, presented in a way that we, as viewers are asked to accept as being the real experience of the main protagonist.
I suppose I feel it is a lack of subtlety or sensitivity to the subject which is so disappointing. It is audacious to depict the afterlife in a drama that deals with horrifying murder in ways that are whimsical. For me it dilutes the potential emotive power of the story. Although a shift in tone, away from the deeply disturbing is necessary, just to keep the audience watching,this is, nevertheless, too lightweight to the point of disrespect.
The murderer is depicted in a stereotypical way, almost as a cartoon character, like something "The League of Gentlemen" might have invented.
There are the big, expensive and sumptuous visuals, the spectacle that Peter Jackson does so well, but this is not "King Kong" and it just doesn't seem quite an appropriate match for the subject. In Michael Powell's film "A Matter of Life and Death", which I regard very highly, there are fantastical elements to the depiction of the afterlife, or at least the hinterland between life and death as the protagonist tries to find his way back to life and love. The important thing is that that film is essentially a war-time romance, with a pinch of morality tale; this, however, is the dark and horrifying subject of child murder.
"The Lovely Bones" is a deeply sad and emotive tale and I feel it would have been better served with less Hollywood hokum, less obvious presentations of life after death and much more sensitivity to the subject. I haven't read the novel on which the screenplay was based and perhaps my problems with "The Lovely Bones" stem from there. But, as a film, this is no "American Beauty" or "Pan's Labyrinth" and it is certainly no "In the Bedroom" It is more Spielberg than Todd Field in its approach and I wish it had been balanced toward the latter.
Definitely worth viewing but it is upsetting and unsettling in more ways than the obvious and terrible crime at the heart of the drama.