Thursday, January 23, 2014

Flowers in the Attic (2014)

Like a lot of women my age, I went through a Flowers in the Attic phase during junior high school. And like a lot of women my age, I've never entirely been able to leave the attic behind me. I'm a sucker for personal nostalgia and the creepy, gothic V.C. Andrews best seller about children locked away in the attic by their greedy bitch of a mother and their cold, religious fanatic grandmother still holds a very strange and special place in my heart. I actually watched and fell in love with the movie version of Flowers in the Attic before I read the novel or any of its sequels. And despite the fact that the 1987 adaptation gets a lot wrong I still get a kick out of watching it (if I find it when I'm switching channels I'm usually hard-pressed to pass it up and I still have a decent portion of the dialogue committed to memory). I was at first curious and eventually deliriously excited about Lifetime's new made-for-tv adaptation of the story. The casting choices were solid and Lifetime promised that they'd "go there" with regards to the incest in the novel, as opposed to the earlier adaptation, which conveniently overlooked that rather essential plot point. I had pretty much convinced myself that this new Lifetime version was going to be exactly what I'd been waiting for since I was a pre-teen.

So it should come as no surprise that the new Flowers in the Attic did not live up to my expectations. That's not to say I disliked it. I liked it quite a bit. It improves upon the original adaptation in several ways. But it makes some missteps as well. For one thing, it feels very rushed. The Dollanganger children are locked away from the world for years but the passage of time never sunk in for me because the pace seemed so brisk. I was messaging with a friend during commercial breaks and she remarked that we should've created a Flowers in the Attic edition of BINGO to keep up with all the crucial plot points from the book as they popped up in the movie. It made me realize that there was something very perfunctory about the way this new version was unfolding. It's far more faithful to the source material but in a very paint-by-numbers kind of way. Almost as if the filmmakers made a checklist of things they were determined to get right since the first version got them wrong. So, yes, in this new version the older children are closer to the ages they were in the book. And yes, the mouse is correctly named Mickey rather than Fred and Cory dies after eating poisoned donuts rather than poisoned cookies. And, of course, Corrine does not die on her wedding day at the end of this one. She just takes off and leaves her kids for dead and then they escape with very little fanfare, just like they do in the book. The problem for me is that, for the most part, things just happened one after the other and the scenes and characters weren't given much breathing room or a chance to really develop. The plot unfolds like a power point presentation. With the exception of a handful of intense moments it's kind of lifeless.

Maybe it will be better if I watch a second time and skip commercials. I felt like every time the story started to become emotionally charged it was cut short by a commercial break. It was jarring. And, I know this is a Lifetime movie but I needed it to not feel so much like a Lifetime movie. For all that the original version gets wrong I did love its creepy gothic aesthetic and haunting baby-doll musical score. This new version was too bright and shiny and the score was too upbeat. Visually it felt very generic to me. The one place where this version absolutely excels over the other is in its casting choices and its characterizations. Kiernan Shipka is a wonderful Cathy - strong and stubborn and full of life and anger but still so naive and innocent. Mason Dye is equally strong as Christopher. He may come across as kind of wooden at times but that's correct. Christopher is entirely hung up on the lies his mother feeds him and the story she spins and the image he thinks he ought to project and preserve to make her happy. It should come as no surprise that his mannerisms seem, at times, like play-acting. As he becomes more disenchanted with his mother that facade starts to crumble and he goes to a darker place. By the time he and Cathy admit that they're attracted to one another and consummate their forbidden relationship he's become a much more imposing and unstable presence. And, yes, the movie "goes there" with the incest but in the most conservative, least disturbing way that it could. Shipka and Dye do the best they can but they're restricted because of the glossy way in which that aspect of the story is presented.

Like Dye's Christopher, Heather Graham's Corrine is also wooden and overly theatrical at times. I found it distracting at first but, like Christopher, Corrine is a woman who is entirely swept up in the image she is supposed to be projecting. Graham's wide-eyed China doll shtick is really quite perfect for a character like this. She lies to win over her father, she lies to win over her new husband, she lies to all her parents' rich friends who come to Foxworth Hall for lavish parties and she lies, cruelly, over and over again to her poor children. Even before her husband is killed she's a bit frosty and dismissive as a mother. She believes she was only ever cut out to be an ornament to a successful man. She's a trophy. A beautiful construct that is almost entirely devoid of human warmth and compassion. She cares for nothing outside of her own comfort. She liked her children well enough when it was convenient for her but she has no qualms about getting rid of them when they become an obstacle to her efforts to secure her father's fortune. She is one of the most infuriatingly narcissistic characters I've ever encountered. Graham is to be commended for making her as vile as she ought to be. 

But Flowers in the Attic's greatest strength is Ellen Burstyn's amazing turn as Olivia, the grandmother. When I was young I was fascinated and terrified by Louise Fletcher's version of this character, which is basically a riff on her Nurse Ratched performance from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Fletcher is certainly a commanding and imposing presence but there really isn't anything to the character beyond that. Burstyn's Grandmother is every bit as frightening but she's also allowed to show flashes of compassion and humanity. She's even allowed, at times, to be vulnerable. Like the book, the movie suggests that Olivia's hatred for her grandchildren does not come easily to her. Her antagonistic relationship with her own daughter forces her to regard her grandchildren with cold indifference even though, at times, this appears to be extremely difficult for her. She's certainly no better than Corrine and the children suffer because of both women but I felt like I could understand Olivia's point of view and, at times, muster a bit of pity for her. The relationships in the story are richer and more nuanced because this fearsome presence has been rendered a little less frightening and a little more accessible.

I'm pleased that this new version of Flowers in the Attic exists. It's still not quite the adaptation that I wanted but it was a noble effort. The performances definitely make it a worthwhile viewing experience. Maybe someone will try again in another couple of decades to create a more faithful version of this cult classic. Third time's the charm, right?