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WHITE OLEANDER (article first published : 2003-05-30)

What is it about the amazing Michelle Pfeiffer that she seems to get better looking every time we see her on screen - in this new film, directed by Peter Kominsky and based on the popular Janet Fitch novel, with her hair almost down to her waist?

Certainly, in keeping with the analogy drawn by the movie's title, the blonde is a delicate white beauty. But, as the character she plays points out, like the showy oleander flower she is only seemingly fragile and with the capacity to poison anyone she touches.

Pfeiffer is artist Ingrid, a gorgeous and headstrong but selfish and suffocating individual who gently, but firmly, manipulates her idolising daughter Astrid (Alison Lohman), an impressionable teenager who is allowed little room to grow herself.

When Ingrid lands up in jail for the murder of her lover, played by Billy Connolly, Astrid is forced into foster care. And it is her experiences with a series of families over the years, all of which spark changes in both her emotional, mental and physical state, that are the thrust of a drama.

It is a tale which continually reassesses the relationship between Astrid and her mum, whom she visits in prison at regular intervals.

Astrid's first foster mother is Bible-thumping, tackily dressed, ageing beauty Starr (Robin Wright Penn on good form), who becomes worried the teenager wants to seduce her man. Following a shooting incident, Astrid then ends up befriending a teen cartoonist, Paul (Patrick Fugit, the boy reporter in Almost Famous), who is attracted to her.

She then finds herself in the care of sometime actress Claire (Renee Zellweger), with whom she bonds, but who becomes increasingly troubled by her husband (ER's Noah Wyle) having an affair.

The film, which tells its story through Astrid's eyes, tends to run on unneccesarily long at two hours and the tale becomes rather episodic. But the characters are interesting, the acting good and, some sentimentality notwithstanding, it all adds up to engaging viewing. Rating: 7/10. - Billy Suter




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