Before Peter Jackson directed his Lord of the Rings trilogy, J R R Tolkien's book was often classified as "unfilmable", so Jackson can't have been too apprehensive when he went on to adapt another novel with the "unfilmable" tag, Alice Sebold's reading group favourite, The Lovely Bones.
This time, though, the epithet has proven more accurate. Jackson's effort is a perplexing, New Age haze which suggests he never really settled on what kind of film he wanted to make.
Like the novel, the adaptation is narrated by Susie (Atonement's Saoirse Ronan), a 14-year-old who lives happily with her family in 1973. Or rather, she doesn't live with them. Having been murdered by a neighbour (Stanley Tucci) – although not raped before being murdered, as she is in the book – Susie is telling us her story from a limbo called "The In-Between". An ever-changing, Dali-esque wonderland in which ships in bottles bob on the ocean and a tree's leaves fly away as birds, it looks like an award-winning shampoo advert. But Susie doesn't have much to do while she's there except to peep through the ether at her family. You'd forget she was in the film at all if it weren't for the constant, stage-whispered voiceover, which never manages to be as profound as Ronan's breathy enunciation promises.
Why did you choose photography as a hobby, Susie? "I loved the way a photo could capture a moment before it was gone." Wow. And what can you tell us about dying? "Slipping away. That's what it felt like." Amazing.
If The Lovely Bones doesn't deliver either as a ghost story or a treatise on the afterlife, then what is it? A weepie, maybe. But while the book concentrates on the ways that Susie's death wreaks havoc on her parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz), the film crowds them all into a montage. One character's obsession and another character's affair are all watered down or missed out completely. And so, half of the cast, including Susan Sarandon's boozy grandma, might as well have been missed out too.
Not a weepie, then. A thriller, perhaps? At times, yes, but not a very effective one. Considering that Tucci's character lives alone, builds dolls' houses, sports an inchoate moustache, and appears to have his mouth stuffed with cotton wool, I can only assume that his T-shirt with "Murderer" printed on it was in the wash. Overall, Jackson has taken a story which wasn't exactly short of unreal elements, and done his best to make it even more artificial. He's turned an unfilmable book into an unwatchable film.
Some cinema-goers might not be too enticed by the prospect of a drama charting the disintegration of a Russian novelist's marriage in the months before his death – which is why The Last Station is such a delicious surprise. Revolving around a Santa-bearded Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his exasperated wife Sofya (Helen Mirren), it is sometimes raw and elegiac, but for much of the time it is witty and buoyant, a country-house farce.
It's set on Tolstoy's estate in 1910. The great man has retired from novel-writing, and now devotes himself to the revolutionary philosophy which has spawned the Tolstoyan movement. His friend Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) heads this movement, and is particularly keen that the copyright of his books should be willed to the Russian people. Sofya, naturally, feels that she and their children would be worthier recipients. Stuck in the middle is Tolstoy's new secretary, Valentin (James McAvoy), a wide-eyed acolyte who lives by the Tolstoyan creed of celibacy and asceticism, but who soon learns that Tolstoy and his circle aren't so stringent, and who finds his own resolve being tested by his delectable friend Masha (Kerry Condon).
Glowing with sylvan sunshine, The Last Station gives rich and rounded characters to all of its actors, and plenty of funny lines, too, and yet it doesn't neglect the underlying issues of pragmatism vs dogmatism and life vs art. Having said that, Michael Hoffman, the writer-director, hasn't quite cracked the story's structure. Essentially, Mirren has the same outburst over and over again, interspersed by horse-and-trap rides in the country, so the film loses its early momentum. But its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. And my only objection to Mirren and Plummer's Oscar nominations is that the rest of the cast should have been nominated too.
Also Showing: 21/02/10
Crazy Heart (111 mins, 15)
Crazy Heart is somewhere between a hard luck story and a good luck story. Jeff Bridges may be a chain-smoking, bourbon-soaked country and western has-been, but compared to The Wrestler, for instance, the film is a big-hearted comic yarn which takes its mood from Bridges' laid-back warmth – and that's even before the languidly sexy Maggie Gyllenhaal steers him off the road to ruin. It's very enjoyable, but not dark enough to be very moving.
The Unloved (106 mins)
Samantha Morton's first film as a director is a sensitive, semi-autobiographical account of a girl's experiences in a Nottingham children's home. Shown on Channel 4 last year.
A Closed Book (89 mins, 15)
Bad-film aficionados, here's a treat for you: a cheap and cheesy gothic thriller which is so close to being an out-and-out self parody that it's almost as entertaining as it is terrible.
Demetrios Matheou takes the measure of Micmacs, a Parisian fairy tale from the director of Amélie