Confession: I have never managed to sit all the way through any of Peter Jackson's interminably dull and juvenile Lord of the Rings epics. So it is heartening to find New Zealand's most famous cinematic export finally turning his formidable technical skills to more grown-up and challenging subject matter.
Adapted from Alice Sebold's best-selling 2002 novel, The Lovely Bones is Jackson's most emotionally mature film to date. Strangely, judging by its chilly reception in the US, it is also shaping up to be his first serious critical and commercial flop. In fairness, the grim subject matter was never going to be an easy sell. Sebold's book is narrated from beyond the grave by Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old schoolgirl who is murdered by her serial-killer neighbour in suburban Pennsylvania in 1973.
The young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan gives a highly impressive performance as Susie, conveying both childlike innocence and budding teenage emotion. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz are also solidly believable as her parents, even if both appear too youthful and Hollywood-pretty for the roles. And Susan Sarandon is a delight as the dead girl's eccentric grandmother, although her all-too-brief scenes are chiefly here for comic relief.
There are echoes of Jackson's past work in The Lovely Bones, especially in Susie's scenes, which recall the fantastical hallucinations in his real-life murder saga Heavenly Creatures and the majestic vistas in the Lord of the Rings series. He even includes a fleeting, jokey homage to JRR Tolkien in a shopping-mall bookshop scene. As we might expect, Jackson dazzles with the CGI special effects sequences. After her death, Susie wanders a magical realm of infinite golden cornfields, dancing mountain ranges and full-sized sailing ships trapped inside vast glass bottles. These dreamscapes are brilliantly composed, but arguably overshadow the film's more tragic human elements.
Jackson and his co-writers, including his wife and long-term collaborator Fran Walsh, stay largely faithful to Sebold's book while dispensing with a few details. They skirt around more sordid aspects of Susie's murder, both for taste and commercial reasons. They also cut the affair between her mother and the detective Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli), which is no great dramatic loss, but might have helped clarify the marital crisis midway through the film.
More questionable is the missing detail on the killer's childhood, which partially humanised him and explained his psychological motivation. Barely recognisable in a sandy brown, comb-over wig and false teeth, Stanley Tucci gives an excellent performance. He is convincingly creepy, but he remains a one-dimensional monster throughout. His eventual demise, in a scene added by Jackson in response to test screenings, feels a little heavy-handed.
The Lovely Bones is not the disastrous misfire that some have claimed - it's more like a technically dazzling but dramatically disjointed mix of disturbing murder thriller and uplifting fable. It is a commendably serious work, even if Jackson spends too long in his digital toy box at the expense of character depth and emotional consistency.