When Michelle Pfeiffer sweeps into a hotel room during the Toronto International Film Festival clad in a gauzy blouse, the men in the room turn into stammering prepubescent boys. Her power is mind-boggling, and a bit unsettling. Baby's got it, and she knows how to use it.
OK, so she's an alum of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful list, but there's something exaggerated about Pfeiffer's physical perfection that translates better on a four-storey screen. Up close and personal, the fragile bone structure and whittled cheekbones make her look like an alien.
The beauty is a beast in her newest film, White Oleander. In this adaptation of the best-selling Southern Gothic novel, she plays a stunning sociopath. She's mom to Astrid (Alison Lohman), a precocious adolescent who's bounced from foster home to foster home after her photographer mom offs her philandering boyfriend.
The metaphor of oleander -- an intoxicating plant whose innocent-looking white blossoms belie its deadly poisonous qualities -- runs deep. Pfeiffer's Ingrid (dazzling even in prison orange) wields her looks like a weapon, luring naive victims into her inner sanctum with a sexy smirk. Ingrid is chillingly evil. Soulless even. Pfeiffer says that wasn't her take on the character.
"I didn't approach it with the intention of being scary. I approached it trying to find out who this person was. She baffled me -- and probably still baffles me.
"But however destructive and narcissistic and annihilating she might be, and selfish, she's relentlessly steadfast in her beliefs, and she's willing to pay the price for that."
In the wake of a slew of treacly and tepid adaptations of Oprah-touted tomes, White Oleander is surprisingly powerful (see review, page 88). That's because the novel's considerably darker than most of its feel-good companions on the list.
A fan of the book, Pfeiffer had qualms about a few of the filmmaker's choices.
"In the novel she's a poet, so the power of her word was integral. I think it was risky changing her to a photographer. I loved her as a poet and resisted their changing it. But Peter (director Kosminsky) felt it wasn't visually interesting enough, and I respect that."
In the novel, Ingrid and Astrid communicate primarily through letters, which plays poorly onscreen. Instead, Ingrid utters bleak pronouncements from behind bars during a series of prison visits with her daughter.
The dialogue is slightly clunky, pretentiously poetic at times, but it's tempered by the chemistry between Pfeiffer and newcomer Lohman. Lohman holds her own against a stellar cast of women, including Renée Zellweger and Robin Wright Penn, who sparkle as two of Astrid's idiosyncratic foster moms.
The 21-year-old Lohman plays chameleon in the flick, taking on the personality and colour of her constantly changing surroundings. Her character ages four years over the course of the story, morphing from introverted wallflower to jaded goth chick in the process.
The physical and psychological transformation is tricky, but Lohman pulls it off.
"I could relate to that shyness more than anything else," she nervously confesses later in the same hotel suite. Lohman's anxious naïveté is a marked contrast to Pfeiffer's impenetrable composure.
She's so new to the biz -- before Oleander her top credit was a small role in cheesy horror flick The Thirteenth Floor -- that you worry how she'll deal with the fallout from her phenomenal performance.
Shivering and skinny, she fidgets with her hands during the film fest press junket but lights up when asked why such a timid girl would go into acting.
"Playing the opposite of my personality is the most rewarding, 'cause you can't believe you've just done something you'd never do. There's so much excitement in having so much fear of something and knowing you have to follow through with it."
Since a role opposite Nic Cage in Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men is her next project, it looks like Lohman's going to be finding a way to make her new character of It Girl work. email@example.com
WHITE OLEANDER directed by Peter Kosminsky, written by Mary Agnes Donoghue, adapted from the novel by Janet Fitch, produced by Stacy Cohen, E.K. Gaylord II, Kristin Harms, Hunt Lowry, Patrick Markey and John Wells, with Michelle Pfeiffer, Alison Lohman, Robin Wright Penn, Renée Zellweger, Billy Connolly and Patrick Fugit. 109 minutes. Opens Friday (October 11). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 88. Rating: NNNN