Everything about Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Sebold’s bestselling book The Lovely Bones is worked out to an excruciating fault. The décor is precise for the early-1970s middle-America setting, with photo cubes, period knickknacks, and hideous wallpaper dominating the sets. Jackson’s version of the afterlife—a majestic, bright realm where Important, Obvious Symbols dominate a shifting fantasy landscape—is rendered in gorgeous digital detail. Unfortunately, the themes are similarly fussed-over and underlined, as if Jackson and his habitual co-writers—his wife Fran Walsh and their partner Philippa Boyens—are worried that viewers might dare to get lost in the arty visuals and miss the slight messages about grief and obsession.
Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan stars as the story’s narrator, a murdered girl (and rape victim in the book, though the film elides that entirely) who refuses to move on to heaven; trapped in a beautiful between-realm shaped by her desires, she watches her sister and parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) struggle emotionally over her death, while her murderer (a convincingly creepy Stanley Tucci) plots his next crime. Her fixation on her incomplete life and the man who cut it short mirrors Wahlberg’s fixation on finding her killer; Wahlberg provides an early key to the story when he gives Ronan a banal primer on obsession. He also explains a snow globe in terms that will later become significant when she, too, is trapped outside of time, within a perfect world. It’s that kind of film, where every casual utterance later winds up draped in weighty significance or irony, and where Ronan, in a breathy little whisper of narration, spends nearly every moment of the film reminding viewers what they should be thinking or feeling.
And yet The Lovely Bones is often moving, almost in spite of itself. Jackson draws excruciating tension out of scenes where the audience knows exactly what’s coming but the characters don’t, and his dreamlike, allusive handling of Ronan’s murder is stunning. The afterlife scenes are gorgeous, even though they often seem to be ultra-glossy updates of sequences he managed with more heart back in 1994 with Heavenly Creatures. And Ronan remains a tender, touching performer, though Wahlberg edges perilously close to his bug-eyed sincerity mode from The Happening. But for all its successes, Bones remains more crafted than sincere, more meant to look achingly pretty on the screen than to resonate in the heart.