Flowers In The Attic tries, but can’t go home again
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Flowers In The Attic tries, but can’t go home again

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V.C. Andrews’ 1979 novel, Flowers In The Attic (furtive reading material for eighth-graders everywhere), is, decades later, a victory for camp everywhere. Though the five-book Dollanganger series eventually descends into straight-faced plot-pretzels (the likes of which will probably show up on The Spoils Of Babylon) much of the Gothic drama in this installment is quaint by cable standards: children locked in an attic discovering illicit love. Cathy and Christopher are but one of a handful of incestuous siblings on TV in recent seasons, and Christopher never even pushed a kid out a tower window.

It carries a strange earnestness—even the incest trades more on the breathy sincerity of first love than on the taboo. And when setting out to bring something as self-serious as Flowers In The Attic to the screen, there’s a lot of tonal negotiation before the cameras roll. The vicious cycle of abuse and the children’s powerlessness is immediate and horrifying—especially for Cathy, who sees it moving toward her straight down the gender line. At the same time, there’s pulp sensibility in the Dollanganger siblings story, as they’re locked away by callow mother Corinne and left alone to grow close, practice ballet, and handle constant softball exposition lobbed at them about the family.

The 1987 feature film was a diluted fumble—incest is replaced by a few chaste clinches—but it doubled down on camp, letting the Dollanganger kids publicly punish mom and giving Cathy two separate opportunities to look to the sky and scream, “Noooo!” Lifetime refrains from either of those over-the-top flourishes. But restraint is probably this new production’s biggest problem.

This doesn’t mean total disaster; fans who’ve waited 20 years for Foxworth Hall can rest easy that this take is truer to the novel. Trailers have smartly emphasized moments from the book, promising that this time, Grandmother breaks out the tar. And from the Dollanganger’s pristine mid-century modern house to the tissue-paper garden in the attic, there’s big-budget polish in the design (everywhere save Kiernan Shipka’s wigs). It’s also been lovingly shot, with enough claustrophobia in the dark cluttered sets to make the eye long for landscape as much as the children do. But, perhaps in a bid to elevate the tone of the proceedings, there’s a soft-pedal touch that dampens what should be visceral camp. Dialogue becomes leaden exposition, horror feels halfhearted, and Cathy and Christopher’s story unfurls with the stilted determination of a high school play.

Mason Dye as Christopher is as gormlessly stalwart as he needs to be, even if his dialogue is a bingo card of soap-opera lines (a petulant “Don’t you think I know that?” gets center square). Shipka actually fares worse. Her Cathy’s a sharp observer, but in trying to deliver an understated performance in a situation that doesn’t support it, Shipka creates an ironic remove that scuttles Cathy. Rarely has someone been so blasé about lusting for their brother. They’re companionable enough, but their attraction’s more dutiful than overpowering—not helped by the awkward blocking of a statistically improbable amount of mattress-based horseplay. It’s worth noting that, in a sly callback to the book, Dye manages more intensity in Oedipal adoration of their mother.

And what a mother. As Corrine, Heather Graham is a canny bit of meta casting. Whether she’s an impossibly stiff simulacrum of a human woman, or a skilled actress cannily projecting the wide-eyed dullness of a mannequin, the effect of her arch nonchalance is the same: a woman without internal resources. When Corinne chirps, “What’s the matter—should I tell Santa to take back all your presents?” seemingly unaware of the threat, it’s clear just how long she’s managed this charade. In every pointed question, the manipulation is overt, but flat enough that the children mistakenly think it’s a negotiation of love rather than obedience.

But obedience it has to be. The story’s greatest horror hinges on Corinne’s incremental villainy, the coquettish exterior hiding both a childish dependence and a vortex of greed. (In one of many foreboding moments, Corinne warns Cathy ostensibly about grandma: “Some mothers are impossible to love; they don’t act like mothers at all.”) Corinne is the reason they suffer, and Christopher and Cathy’s coming of age is as much about recognizing that dynamic as it is about awkwardly browsing their stepdad’s porn. As large as Grandmother looms, she’s only an instrument of Corinne’s evil, an immovable pillar whose omnipresence and outbursts distract the children from the subtler violence being inflicted upon them. And the most interesting change Flowers In The Attic makes is also its most risky: It turns Grandmother into an actual person.

In Ellen Burstyn, who runs away with every scene she’s in, Grandmother’s religious fanaticism and disdain for her daughter and grandchildren are tempered by unconscious bursts of humanity—a bouquet of real flowers for the attic, hesitation before refusing the children’s Christmas gift. Even when she rages, there are ghosts behind her anger. Burstyn’s Grandmother has had horrors visited on her, and her grim righteousness carries an undercurrent of relief that at least this time, she’s in charge. There’s also wry, grudging awareness of the monster she made in Corinne. In a sublime beat, Corinne tries on her father’s heirloom necklace at a party as Grandmother says with pointed blandness, “Maybe someday you’ll have a daughter of your own you can pass it on to.”

By making her more complicated than a black-draped cipher, the movie cleverly shifts the tension from the well-worn inevitable points of Flowers In The Attic to something fresh in every standoff: The chance, small as it is, that maybe this time Grandmother will show mercy. It doesn’t entirely offset the anvils of dialogue that surround it—maybe nothing could—but it makes her the gripping center this adaptation needed. Without her, it would be a well-formed attempt that still doesn’t bring the Dollangangers to life. Perhaps, because it was unwilling to risk becoming camp, this Flowers can’t achieve the necessary passion, either—Corinne’s viciousness is lost in the shuffle, and volatile Cathy and confused Christopher remain sketches of real characters, whose love never becomes the lifelong connection that takes them by surprise and desperately rushes them toward freedom. Instead, this adaptation tries to give fans what’s expected of it, it just can’t quite go home again.

Written by: V.C. Andrews (novel), Kayla Alpert (script)
Directed by: Deborah Chow
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Kiernan Shipka, Heather Graham, Mason Dye
Airs: Tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern on Lifetime
Format: TV Movie