In “The Lovely Bones,” 15-year-old Irish phenom Saoirse Ronan’s character dies early on, then spends much of the rest of the film waiting in limbo before she can ascend to heaven.
Ronan’s career seems destined for the stratosphere without the pause.
While the film has thus far received mixed reviews, Ronan is, once again, the subject of rave notices.
The New York Times singled out Ronan’s “unnerving self-assurance and winning vivacity,” the Los Angeles Times called her an “enormously gifted performer” and the Hollywood Reporter simply called her extraordinary.
An Academy Award nominee for 2007’s “Atonement,” the Irish teen has the respect of her co-stars, too.
“I can’t believe she’s 15,” said Rose McIver, a New Zealand newcomer who plays Ronan’s sister in “The Lovely Bones.”
“She’s one of my really dear friends now. I’m 21, she’s 15, but she feels like she’s my older sister. I mean, she’s wise beyond her years and I guess a lot of it is that she’s worked with adults for a long time, and she just has this kind of old soul sort of vibe about her.”
Ronan aside, however, the film — an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s cherished 2002 novel — has had a bit of a bumpy ride.
Director Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”) spent eight months shooting the movie, which centres on a family coping with the brutal murder of their daughter in 1970s Pennsylvania.
After delays and the high-profile exit of original star Ryan Gosling (he was replaced by Mark Wahlberg in the final days before shooting began), “The Lovely Bones” is finally due to hit theatres across Canada Jan. 15.
Part of the mixed critical reaction has stemmed from complaints the film glossed over the graphic rape and murder of Ronan’s character that was depicted in the book.
Ronan, for her part, is decisively on the side of the filmmakers.
“To be honest, I really don’t know why anyone would want to see a 14- year-old girl raped in a movie and killed,” Ronan told The Canadian Press in an interview Thursday at a Toronto hotel.
The scene in question? A pivotal moment early in the film, in which a creepy neighbour (played by Stanley Tucci) lures Ronan’s Susie Salmon into a pit he’s constructed in the middle of a cornfield.
There, Tucci’s sinister George Harvey urges Ronan’s character to drink a bottle of Coke and fiddle with the toys he’s arranged for her, while she slowly figures out what’s in store for her before trying to escape.
Ronan’s character then dies off-screen while her spirit sprints away. The rape is never mentioned.
“ What’s so potent about this film is that people in any range of ages and experiences and people who have had their own experiences can go and watch it,” McIver said.
“I’m sure that they’re very aware of the subtlety. There’s no need to put something explicit to trigger what that means for people. And it’s amazing that a 13-year-old can go and watch it and be safe to watch it and not be emotionally scarred by something they don’t need to be thinking about.”
Even without that more graphic content, Tucci was apprehensive about the scene, which the actors had hanging over their heads through months of the lengthy shoot.
Jackson has reportedly said it was Ronan who helped Tucci — 34 years her senior — through that unnerving time on set.
“Stanley and I were quite anxious about doing the scene and getting it over and done with, especially for Stanley because he’s the bad guy,” Ronan recalled cheerfully.
“I was looking forward to getting that out there but it was a little bit nerve-wracking. I wasn’t really sure what we were going to do or how Pete was going to go about it.
“Stanley and I get on really, really well and I was worried about him because it was Mr. Harvey’s fault. It was all down to him. I just took care of him. I’m glad it’s out of the way.”
What follows is a melancholy look at how a family fractured by death manages to cope. Ronan’s character watches her father (Mark Wahlberg) obsess over her murderer and her mother (Rachel Weisz) drift away to a commune. She worries for the safety of her feisty sister (McIver), who may be her killer’s next target.
Following her death early in the film, Ronan’s character is transported to a space in between heaven and hell because she’s unable to let go of her family. This trippy, gorgeously crafted CG realm is a wonderland of sprawling oceans, massive ships within even-bigger glass bottles and lush gardens that extend into the distance.
Of course, this meant Ronan appeared in many scenes alone, often in front of a blue screen.
“It wasn’t that tough,” she said with a shrug.
“ The script describes the inbetween very well, so I could just look over it the night before and have a picture of it in my head of what it was going to be like. And then during the day, during takes, Pete would actually talk to me and he would describe what was going on around me, so I was able to react to that, and we had music.
“It was made very, very easy for me.”
And the accomplished teen made it look even easier.
“She’s just magnificent in this film,” McIver said. “I’m so proud of her and so honoured to play her sister.”