How does one make a PG-certificate film about the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl? Director Peter Jackson provides an answer of sorts with The Lovely Bones, which leaves the murder unseen and the rape unmentioned.
His reward is a blushing mainstream entertainment that was tonight deemed fit to be introduced to polite society at a royal premiere in Leicester Square. Our reward is anyone's guess.
The drama ushers us through the afterlife of Susie Salmon (Atonement's Saoirse Ronan), a small-town kid in 1970s Pennsylvania who is killed by the local pervert (Stanley Tucci) and looks down on her scattered, shattered family from her place in limbo. She sees her mum (Rachel Weisz) flee the coop and her dad (Mark Wahlberg) come apart at the seams. From this celestial vantage, she starts to fear for the safety of her little sister (Rose McIver), whose jogging route leads her regularly past the killer's suburban home.
It's not that The Lovely Bones is a bad movie, exactly. It is handsomely made and strongly acted, while its woozy, lullaby ambience recalls Jackson's work on the brilliant Heavenly Creatures, before he set forth on his epic voyage through The Lord of the Rings.
Here, he audaciously conjures up heaven as designed by a teenage girl – a kitsch spread of sunflower fields, spinning turntables and the sort of airbrushed waterfalls that could have spilled straight off an Athena poster. All of which is entirely fitting, and often captivating. The problem, though, is that The Lovely Bones also gives us a real world as designed by a teenage girl. The land that Susie leaves behind is so infested with cartoon archetypes and whimsical asides that, at times, it scarcely feels real at all.
Might the fault lie with the source novel? Alice Sebold's best-selling book similarly held up Susie Salmon's innocent fancies as a kind of talisman to ward off evil. It dared to spin a sentimental fantasy out of a grisly tragedy, offsetting the tang of sulphur with the sweet taste of candyfloss. The difference was that Sebold's novel was not scared to look the central horror in the face. This ensured that it at least part earned its subsequent flights into the ether.
The screen version, by contrast, is so infuriatingly coy, and so desperate to preserve the modesty of its soulful victim that it amounts to an ongoing clean-up operation.
Gone is the dismembered body part that alerts the family to Susie's fate. Gone is her anguished mother's adulterous affair with the detective who leads the case. Gone is all mention of what really transpired in that lonely 1970s cornfield. Is this really the best way to secure a crime scene and retrieve the victim? Jackson turns up with his eyes averted, spraying cloying perfume to the left and right.