An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maids' point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis.
Astrid Magnussen is a 15 year old girl, living in California. Her mother, Ingrid, is a beautiful, free-spirited poet. Their life, though unusual, is satisfying until one day, a man named Barry Kolker (that her mother refers to at first as "The goat man") comes into their lives, and Ingrid falls madly in love with him, only to have her heart broken, and her life ruined. For revenge, Ingrid murders Barry with the deadly poison of her favourite flower: The White Oleander. She is sent to prison for life, and Astrid has to go through foster home after foster home. Throughout nearly a decade she experiences forbidden love, religion, near-death experiences, drugs, starvation, and how it feels to be loved. But throughout these years, she keeps in touch with her mother via letters to prison. And while Ingrid's gift is to give Astrid the power to survive, Astrid's gift is to teach her Mother about love. Written by
The white oleander looks beautiful but its poison kills. Social service agencies take children from their abusive parents but place them in homes and institutions where violence reigns. Ingrid Magnussen (Michelle Pfeiffer) puts her daughter, Astrid (Alison Lohman), in the center of her artwork but pushes her to the perimeter of her reality. Life is a contradiction in which nothing is purely good or purely evil.
White Oleander is a story about life's contradictions and the complexities of control, power, loneliness, betrayal, loyalty, and love. Janet Fitch won rave reviews in 2000 for this novel; screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue did not match Fitch's brilliance, but turned a weighty narrative-both in terms of content and size-into an admirable film blueprint.
Director Peter Kosminsky and accomplished actresses Pfeiffer, Robin Wright Penn, Renée Zellweger, and newcomer Lohman used this blueprint to create a gripping film that both readers and nonreaders of the original text will appreciate.
Pfeiffer is as cool and controlling as she is stunning even in prison garb, and her mastery of personality subtleties deserves acclaim. Audiences will hate the character because she is too smart, too manipulative, and too real.
And anticipate an Oscar-worthy breakthrough performance from Lohman. She shines in her portrayal of a daughter who worships her mother until she realizes the superficial nature of her beauty and the cruelty of her heart. Ingrid Magnussen is not as perfect as she thinks, and her love is as poisonous as the white oleander.
Stereotypes cheapen some of the film's richness and choices made to avoid an `R' rating sap some of its strength, but overall the film is as compelling as its sad and truthful characters.
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