Jan. 20, 2010 12:00

Jackson rolls them Lovely Bones while Young Victoria rules

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Peter Jackson’s big-screen adaptation of The Lovely Bones is a noble, well-made, but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to translate Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel to the screen. Nevertheless, Jackson (who also produced and scripted along with longtime collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) is such gifted and intuitive filmmaker that the film is worth seeing, flaws and all… and flaws it does have.

Set in the early 1970s in the bucolic Pennsylvania burg of Norristown — where this reporter’s college roommate Rich hails from, incidentally — The Lovely Bones is the story of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), an all- American teenager who reflects on her life — a life cut short when she was murdered by George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), a seemingly unassuming neighbor who is actually a serial killer.

Jackson doesn’t specifically depict Susie’s murder, thereby maintaining a more audience-friendly PG-13 rating (and, by contrast, angering some of the novel’s more fervent admirers), yet the build-up to the act is so excruciatingly suspenseful that a more explicit approach is hardly necessary.

It is at this point, however, that The Lovely Bones begins to lose its momentum and its narrative grip.

Susie is dead, but her spirit remains locked in an ethereal netherworld (a picturesque Purgatory, perhaps?). She watches over, and comments about, the surviving members of her family, and expresses an understandable desire for Harvey to get caught for his crimes, which she (rightly) fears will continue.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Susie’s father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) is desperately trying to hold his anguish at bay, and becomes obsessed with finding her killer. Her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) is ill-equipped emotionally to deal with her loss, and leaves home to work among migrant farm workers. However faithful to the novel that last story development may be, it doesn’t engender much audience sympathy for the character.

Younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) and younger brother Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale) do some fast growing up in the face of Susie’s death, and more worrisome is that Lindsey has caught the attention of Harvey.

Susan Sarandon adds an energetic, if misplaced, touch of comic relief as chain-smoking, hard-drinking Grandma who arrives to take control of the situation but whose very presence tends to throw the drama off-balance.

Sarandon’s a lot of fun in the role, but since Grandma almost never refers to Susie’s death the character occasionally seems out of place.

As these parallel storylines ebb and flow, Jackson is unable to bring them together in cohesive or compelling fashion. The film struggles to regain its footing throughout the second half, yet never quite does so — although it’s hardly for lack of effort. It’s easy to admire Jackson’s artistry, even if he’s unable to tie the two strands of the story together.

There are also the performances, which are all decent and some — those of Ronan, McIver and a vividly creepy Tucci — that are terrific. Amid the (too) overwhelming visual splendor, Jackson is still able to coax affecting work from his actors.

The Young Victoria is one of those historical costume period pieces that the British do so well — and do so again here.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee from Julian Fellowes’ script, The Young Victoria dramatizes the early years in the reign of England’s famed queen, to date the longestreigning monarch in that nation’s history. Emily Blunt acquits herself well in the title role, playing a young woman suddenly thrust into the forefront of international politics at a time when England’s political fortunes were in particular precariousness.

Once the young queen is crowned, everyone wants a piece of her. To an extent, a nation’s politics are defined by the personality and disposition of its leader. Victoria certainly made her mistakes as monarch, yet was able to admit those mistakes and forge on ahead, proving to both detractors and supporters that, when pushed, she had no hesitation in pushing right back.

Rupert Friend plays Belgium’s Prince Albert, who would marry Victoria and father nine offspring with her, and the classy cast also includes Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Mark Strong, Thomas Kretschmann, Julian Glover and Jim Broadbent (as the ailing King William). Occasionally the story smacks of big-screen soap opera, but it’s also a historically accurate soap opera executed with pace and speed without losing its dramatic or historical resonance. Rule Britannia!

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