Jan 10, 2010

Review Post 59: The Lovely Bones / Exhibit A

DIR: Peter Jackson
CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci,
Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Rose McIver

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” Those are the first two sentences of Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones, which, after some time in development hell (and the departure of original writer/director Lynne Ramsay) has now been turned into a film by Peter Jackson. I couldn’t put the book down after reading those opening sentences; they have such a powerful pull, and yet such poetry. They are reproduced in the film, but only after six minutes of screentime, when they land with a dull thud. That neatly encapsulates the problem of this film; it certainly replicates the events of the book, but it mostly misses the feeling of it.

The film tells the same two stories told in the book; that of Susie Salmon’s (Ronan) time in ‘the inbetween’; a heavenly place from which she can still watch earth, and that of her family, attempting to cope with her death and help the police (led by Michael Imperioli’s detective) find her killer, but it doesn’t juggle them as well, and Sebold’s affecting prose is blunted by Peter Jackson’s rather obvious and over literal imagery.

I held out great hopes for this film, not only because the source material was so good, but because it seemed to suit Jackson so well. The Jackson, that is, who made Heavenly Creatures, the one who knew how to use special effects sparingly yet effectively, the Jackson who knew how to make an imagined world feel like an extension of his characters imaginations. The Lovely Bones suggests, sadly, that that Peter Jackson is dead. The real proof of that is in the scenes in ‘the inbetween’. In the novel Susie’s heaven is a simple place, more a replacement for the real world she misses than any traditional vision of heaven. Sadly Jackson drowns these sequences in CGI. One sequence, when Susie sees her Dad (Wahlberg) destroying the collection of bottled ships they have built together, is seen as a huge effects sequence, with giant bottled ships floating and shattering on the sea in ‘the inbetween’.

This is pretty, certainly, and the CGI is good, but there’s just no point to it, and it never connects emotionally. Worse, these effects never seem to come from Susie, there's no story need for them, Peter Jackson just thinks they're pretty. It’s just empty spectacle and that goes for all of the film’s effects sequences. Somebody really needed to explain to Peter Jackson that the simple fact that you can do something with computers doesn’t mean that you should. With the expansion of Susie’s afterlife the earthbound narrative has had to be compressed, and it suffers accordingly. The complex relationships of the novel, and its long timeline, are only lightly sketched resulting in a series of scenes that seem to tell the skeleton of a story, but without any of it having much weight.

It’s all a terrible shame, because everyone here is working hard. Saoirse Ronan is surely one of the great young talents in cinema right now. I honestly think she might be the next Jodie Foster. The Lovely Bones could well bring her a second Oscar nomination before her 16th birthday, and I wouldn’t like to bet against her collecting the prize itself at some point in this coming decade. Ronan is wonderful as Susie. First off there is the note perfect American accent, but that’s just the garnish on a brilliant performance. What’s really amazing about Ronan is her ability, without seeming to be signposting anything, to let us see every flicker of emotion in her characters. She’s a genuinely soulful performer, and that’s perfect for Susie, because what we are supposed to be seeing during much of the film is her soul trapped between Earth and Heaven. She never strikes a false note and, despite the film’s many shortcomings, it is worth seeing just for her.

Almost certain to be Oscar nominated is Stanley Tucci, who is chilling as Susie’s killer (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, we know from five minutes in that he’s guilty). Under George Harvey’s thinning sandy hair and mustache, and with a voice that sounds like he’s struggling to speak through a mouth full of marbles, Tucci is almost unrecognisable. Instead of creating a monster Tucci dials back his performance, playing Harvey as an oily, creepy, but not outwardly dangerous, man. There may also be an Oscar nod for Susan Sarandon, though that would be mostly because she hasn’t been nominated for a while, because while she’s fun as Susie’s glamorous, and frequently drunk, grandmother it’s not a very deep characterisation, and is hamstrung by the screenplay, which gives her a total personality transplant in the last half hour, without any real explanation.

Under-writing is a big problem for this film, outside of Susie and Mr Harvey the characters are all very rough sketches and even the sensitive playing of Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Michael Imperioli can’t make anything but expository props of Susie’s parents and Detective Len Fennerman, which is a pity, given the complex triangle they create in the novel. The performers aren’t to blame though.

The Lovely Bones has to go down as a missed opportunity thanks to Peter Jackson, in attempting to oversell things, in overindulging in special effects, he’s missed the simple ways in which the book achieves pummelling emotion. This is deeply felt in the pivotal murder sequence. Now, clearly, putting it on screen in the same viscerally disturbing manner that it is depicted in the book could have been deeply distasteful, particularly given Saoirse Ronan’s youth, but the way it is fumbled here is almost inexcusable. In fact, if I hadn’t been told by the narration (and the book) I might not have realised that this was the murder sequence. It completely lacks impact. There are ways to not show the murder, and yet make a truly disturbing sequence, but Jackson just completely misses with this sequence.

Towards the end of the film, if only for about ten minutes, things do begin to work. Jackson juxtaposes Susie's last moments on Earth and her last in ‘the inbetween’, in a sequence cut to the astoundingly beautiful This Mortal Coil version of Song to the Siren. I admit I started to well up here, though as much due to Elizabeth Fraser’s voice as anything. It’s this sequence that, perversely, made me most disappointed in the film, because here’s a glimpse of what the whole could, and should, have been. I wish that we’d been able to see Lynne Ramsay’s version of the book, because here more down to earth sensibility might have allowed a simpler but more affecting film to come through. I’d love to wholeheartedly recommend The Lovely Bones, but I can’t. It’s worth seeing for Saoirse Ronan (as is everything that brilliant young actress is in) but the film as a whole is a failure, just buy the book.

Before I launch into the next review, in the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you how it came about. Last week I got an email to the 24FPS address from one Darren Bender. He is the producer of Exhibit A, which I had seen at its premiere at the Raindance Film Festival in 2007, and been a fan of since. After saying that he enjoyed the site (Cheers Darren) he thanked me for being a fan of the film, and offered to send a copy of the DVD that has just been produced to me.

When the DVD arrived I got quite a surprise, on the front cover was a quote that looked familiar, giving the film five stars and credited to Joblo.com. I read it a couple of times, and then realised that it was from MY review, written after the Raindance screening (taken slightly out of context). I imagine this is a regular occurrence for other critics, but frankly it’s a little odd for me. In my initial reply to Darren’s email I told him that I had been planning to include Exhibit A in my articles on the overlooked films of the 00’s, but I’ve now looked at the film again, and thought a full review was in order.

You can watch Exhibit A online, for free (legally) by clicking on the title below

[This review has been edited from its initial version, first to insert a comment from the film's producer and secondly to remove some possible spoilers.]

DIR: Dom Rotheroe
CAST: Bradley Cole, Brittany Ashworth,
Angela Forrest, Oliver Lee

There has been a trend, over the last few years, away from the use of opening credits in films. This allows us to simply get into the story, without being distracted by five minutes worth of names over the opening scenes. Exhibit A eschews any credits, indeed there’s not even a traditional title card. In keeping with the conceit of the film all we see is an evidence marker, identifying what we are about to see as Exhibit A, its source as Murder Scene and its origin as Daughter’s Camcorder. I’ve often quoted Hitchcock’s first law of suspense; give the audience more knowledge than the characters. This is a perfect demonstration of that cinematic law in action; with that one simple card everything that unfolds in the first half hour of this film takes on a different tone.

Found footage films are tricky. The only one to maintain its illusion perfectly is Cannibal Holocaust, but Exhibit A comes close. The only moments that ring false are the occasional snatches of a beach scene that, apparently, haven’t been recorded over (this same device also rang false in Cloverfield, though it was much more prevalent there).
Darren Bender, Exhibit A's producer, contacted me in regard to this, he says:
In fact the beach only reappears (after the original visit to the dream house they aspire to) when the tape is rewound and viewed. I feel this is clearly plotted and is set up each time. It is true to life because anyone shooting over a tape that has been left running will rewind back to the last thing they recorded and once they reach that start recording again.

Still, with due respect and though it takes little away from the film, I feel it's a rather convenient, filmic, device, revaling an artifice absent from the rest of the film. Otherwise the illusion is perfectly realised, with the cast doing almost all of the camerawork themselves. This can mean that the framing is erratic and shaky, but this isn’t shaky-cam as a stylistic choice so much as it an essential part of the illusion; this family aren’t filmmakers, so their home videos look like home video. The film’s first act introduces the King family; Mum and Dad (Forrest and Cole) and teenage children Joe (Lee) and Judith (Ashworth) as a normal nuclear family. There’s a lot of joking around with the video camera given to Judith as a present, and Dad Andy has good news; he’s got a promotion and the family will be moving to a new, much bigger, house on the coast. Underneath it all is that opening card. It’s clear what’s going to happen, but when, how and why isn’t yet clear, and the tension is excruciating. Though it’s only a short film (just 85 minutes) Exhibit A doesn’t hurry. If anything it could be accused of starting slowly, only gradually do we start to see that something may be amiss in what seems, initially, an almost idyllic family life.

This is where the cast comes in. In a film pretending to be found footage any substandard performance can destroy the illusion irrevocably. That doesn’t happen here. Angela Forrest and Oliver Lee are both excellent and entirely real, but their characters do feel slightly like background figures next to Andy and Judith. It’s a real shame that young actress Brittany Ashworth doesn’t appear to have done anything on film since this performance, because it’s a highly impressive piece of work; unaffected even in the most extreme moments of emotion. There’s a real honesty about her work that helps ground the film and the found footage conceit in reality (it also bears mentioning that she’s a pretty good camera operator, at least for the demands of this film).

To my utter disbelief, Bradley Cole also seems not have worked on film in the last few years. His performance as Andy is the pivotal piece of the puzzle, if it doesn’t work everything else falls away. Fortunately he is exceptional, fully deserving of the BIFA award nomination the film earned for him. Exhibit A is, at its heart, a portrait of a man suffering (through his own fault) a complete breakdown. Without overacting (in a part that could easily have invited a scenery chomping, eye rolling ‘I’m mad, me’ performance) Cole takes us completely believably through Andy’s downward spiral. It's heartbreaking work, and a real insight into a complex character.

The closing twenty minutes of the film are almost unbearable. They unfold in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, trapping you in a situation of unimaginable hideousness. In the quote on the DVD case I called the film’s final scene “The single most harrowing thing I’ve seen since [the rape scene in] Gaspar Noe’s IRREVERSIBLE”. I can stand by that. In a single, static, ten minute take the murders are played out in sickening, if never explicit, detail. Most disturbing is the (improvised?) dialogue; so hideous that it makes your skin crawl. Exhibit A is a film that, in a time when most horror films fling gore at your feet relentlessly but never scare you or stay longer than three seconds in your head, will live in your mind for a long time. It’s a troubling film, in much the same way as some of Michael Haneke’s work, that awful sense of reality means you constantly want to look away. I couldn’t. This is the kind of filmmaking that real movie fans like you and I should be embracing; smart, original cinema that resonates long after the end titles.

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