PEOPLE's TV Critic: Lifetime's Flowers In the Attic Is Crazy Good
The Lifetime movie, starring Kiernan Shipka, is a gripping, psychologically coherent foray into American Gothic, PEOPLE's critic says
Flowers in the Attic is the rare Lifetime movie (it airs Saturday at 8 p.m. ET/PT) that can’t simply be written off as a Lifetime movie. It’s so pure and perverse an example of American Gothic, I felt compelled to read the original VC Andrews novel to try and comprehend what sort of imagination could hatch such a nutty story – a fairy tale, really, that somehow combines Hansel and Gretel and The Blue Lagoon. In Virginia horse country.
Flowers, both the book and the new movie, is completely absurd – if you want to gauge the absurdity, just know that one of the darkest secrets in the narrative involves a doughnut – but somehow also psychologically coherent. It has a grip.
So, props to VC Andrews, who died in 1986, even if I’m not going to go anywhere near the book’s sequels. And also to director Deborah Chow, who keeps this adaptation at a seductive, dreamy remove from anything that might be mistaken for reality. (I haven’t seen the 1987 movie, a cult flop that features the signature line, “Eat the cookie!!!”)
The story is narrated by young Cathy Dollanganger (Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka). Once upon a time, she and her brother, Christopher (Mason Dye), and their younger twin siblings, Cory and Carrie, lived a life of suburban enchantment with their beautiful mother, Corrine (Heather Graham), and their handsome father, Christopher Sr.
After Papa dies in a car accident, everyone’s life seems to fall under an evil spell. There is no money (their lifestyle was furnished on the installment plan), only a surfeit of names starting with “C.” Corrine, who is as flawlessly brittle as a Lladro figurine, doesn’t have any skills to bring in money.
Estranged from her own family for undisclosed reasons, Corrine finally prevails upon her mother, Olivia Foxworth, to allow the remaining Dollangangers to move down to Virginia and live in the Foxworth mansion.
The four little Dollengangers are instantly made to understand that they have not landed in some kindly spinoff of Parenthood. Grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) hates the very sight of them, and immediately packs them off to a remote room in a remote wing, where they are ordered to follow a list of don’ts longer than the credits for Star Wars.
They are to remain absolutely invisible – nonpersons – and without the company of Corrine. She will remain below stairs, trying to win forgiveness from her dying father (forgiveness for what?) and hoping to be reinstated in his will. She assures her children this will only be a matter of days.
Listless, Lonely Misery
Days become years, and the children live on and on in listless, lonely misery, punctuated by daily food deliveries from their awful grandmother, who can’t resist hissing dire warnings about lust.
Imagine, if you will, that you are a tiny Japanese village and every morning Godzilla appears and vomits fire at you. That’s what it’s like.
Burstyn, by the way, makes a splendid Godzilla.
Eventually, Cathy and Chris reach puberty up there in the attic, and at that point that what has been a grim Dickensian fantasy of childhood destroyed by grownup iniquity moves into a realm that borders on the insane. I won’t spell it out – I may not even need to, since even people who have never read the book or seen the 1987 movie probably know that this is what gives Flowers its special notoriety. Let’s just say that Andrews delivers a softly lyrical YA take on sexual taboo.
Also, that if Harper Lee had attempted something like this with Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, she would not have won a Pulitzer.
The Lifetime version is less explicit than Andrews’s account, but it still preserves her peculiar tone of dewy-eyed sweetness: The whole novel, in fact, is written with a cloying, innocuous girlishness, along with a rather exasperating emphasis on “doll” imagery.
A Brush with the Grotesque
Without that disorientingly sweet tone, of course, we would be perilously close to grotesque real-life stories of children kept locked away and abused.
The movie’s chief failing is that it doesn’t avoid the monotony that sets in in such a constricted setting – there is no real sense of claustrophobia, of long and slow emotional suffocation. We just wait as things get worse and worse. It would take a master director, someone with a genius for creating a sense of tight, airless space, to accomplish that.
So far as I know, Roman Polanski is not signed up to make any projects for Lifetime.
The acting is, generally, as good as the story allows. At some point I would like to see Shipka play something other than a crushed child. Graham doesn’t suggest the wickedness growing inside gold-digging Corrine – she’s closer to The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan, skittish and uneasy and allowing circumstance to pilot her into dangerous waters. But she makes an effective counterweight to Godzilla.
By the way, Lifetime has announced that it will develop a movie from Andrews’s follow-up novel, Petals on the Wind.