Sigourney Weaver and Alycia Debnam-Carey are the most recognizable stars in Amazon’s adaptation of Holly Ringland’s The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, but both are upstaged by the series’ two real standouts: an astonishing juvenile turn by Alyla Browne and a seven-hour cortege of gorgeous, emotionally weighty Australian sunsets.
Written in its entirety by Sarah Lambert and directed by Glendyn Ivin, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is well-intentioned, beautifully photographed, consistently well-acted, and it represents the latest example of the difficulties of translating a novel with a thoroughly literary conceit to a new medium.
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart
The Bottom Line
[F]lower your expectations.
Airdate: Friday, August 4 (Amazon)
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Alyla Browne, Asher Keddie, Leah Purcell, Frankie Adams
Creator: Sarah Lambert
Director: Glendyn Ivin
The story is metaphors on top of metaphors on top of metaphors as it explores the generational legacy of abuse, but its thin overall narrative and especially its supporting characters frequently get lost in the effort to visualize those metaphors. The series is full of — repetitively so, at times — potent and nearly unwatchable moments of trauma and redemption, but only in Browne and those sunsets was I ever convinced I wouldn’t have been better off experiencing these metaphors and these valuable life lessons on the page.
The series begins with nine-year-old Alice Hart (Browne) living in a coastal town with her mother (Tilda Cobham-Hervey’s Agnes), who reads to her and teaches her about the wonders of flowers, and father (Charlie Vickers’ Clem), who carves intricate things out of wood and abuses his wife and daughter horribly. A fire leaves Agnes and Clem dead and Alice unable to speak, blaming herself.
Local librarian Sally (Asher Keddie), still grieving the loss of her own child, is prepared to take in the seemingly orphaned Alice when, out of nowhere, grandmother June (Weaver) arrives. Alice doesn’t know June, Clem’s mom, at all and June claims never to have met Agnes, which is the first of many lies she tells and has told — lies born of various unspeakable truths that you know will get spoken in the series if you wait patiently. Or impatiently. Alice, whose inability to speak is both literal and metaphorical, moves inland with June to Thornfield, a farm filled with both literal and metaphorical flowers.
The literal flowers fill fields and greenhouses across the farm, every type imaginable and each assigned a thematic meaning, because flowers are the manifestation of things that people want to say, but cannot. They’re also very pretty, which is nice. The metaphorical flowers are the women who live in and around Thornfield, themselves survivors of abuse given sanctuary and the opportunity to cultivate both the literal flowers and themselves. Because they’re flowers.
Yes, I know you’re like, “I’ve got it,” but I’m trying to give you a sense of how on-the-nose The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart tends to be. That’s before you get to the main character’s last name, which was already a bit heavy-handed even prior to later episodes in which a fully grown Alice (Debnam-Carey) gets a job working as a ranger at a remote crater in the outback. A crater with a flower garden shaped like a heart at its center. A garden that people are frequently trampling on, because… look, all I’m saying is that stuff like this always works better on the page.
The jump forward, which takes place after the third episode, gives Alice time to mature and raises the stakes with June’s silence and her lies — the show distinguishes very poorly between the two — and with the repetitive cycles of life and abuse. Oddly, the show isn’t as interested in paralleling those cycles with anything botany-adjacent.
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart wants to have deep psychological complexity, but it also wants to approach that complexity through a story that’s way too simple to sustain over this duration. Every piece of the plot hinges on basically three lies or lies of omission. Even if “silence” is integral to the show, there’s an inevitable frustration that builds up from waiting for the eventual reveals and not always understanding characters’ motivations for the silence or lies other than “trauma.” I think the crucial points are that people can be made into villains because of victimization and that understanding victimization can’t prevent you from becoming a victim yourself.
Most of that, though, has to come through in the performances, rather than the writing or the plot.
It’s here that Browne is a marvel. For the better part of the three episodes inhabiting the character, she has no dialogue at all while still conveying expressive and near-wordless gravity that trains viewers to fixate on and treasure the smallest bursts of emotion. Browne’s interpretation of how Alice processes the tragedy of her childhood, the hope afforded by Thornfield and whether “hope” and “healing” are the same is ultimately far more interesting than the older version of the character Debnam-Carey occupies.
Older Alice indeed begins to feel not like a character on a journey but the product of a writer crafting an arc, or maybe planting seeds and letting them grow. It’s probably a commentary on how we judge stories of abuse from the outside that it takes three hours for Alice to realize something about a flawed love interest that viewers will recognize within 15 minutes. But getting the point isn’t the same as finding it consistently compelling. Debnam-Carey plays the frustrating outline well, but I much preferred the Dickensian mystery of the first half to the contrivance of the second.
Weaver — thankfully opting for so soft an accent that when it waxes and wanes it’s barely noticeable — has always been a master of gradations of brittleness, and June is nothing if not a vehicle for that. The actress balances the strength of a woman who has dedicated her life to something heroic without softening the very real villainy that comes from her desire to do the right thing. Sometimes she’s beatific, sometimes badass — nobody could play a gun-toting mama bear with as much ingrained authority — and sometimes just bad.
So many of the supporting characters, unfortunately, get short shrift. I was especially disappointed with how little the show ultimately does with Twig, June’s Aboriginal partner and perpetual right-hand. Leah Purcell is so compelling in the role that one can easily imagine and wish for a version of the series in which the abuse she faced, much of it clearly institutional, is given equal treatment. Instead, Twig is there to provide support, and even when she separates for her own story it never feels like enough. Ditto, actually, with Samoan/Kiwi actress Frankie Adams, who makes a vivid impression as Candy, another Thornfield resident. In a story of marginalized female voices, to have the two most underserved characters be the show’s women of color is less than ideal.
Though Alice and June never leave the foreground, Twig and the less represented flowers (the human kinds) are in the background and, as such, they’re less featured than those glorious sunsets. Ivin and cinematographer Sam Chiplin give every frame a compositional beauty, but it eventually borders on parody. Characters are constantly explicitly scheduling get-togethers for sundown or sunrise so that the lighting is impeccable. The careful arrangement of flowers, accompanied by cursive text to tell us what they’re saying that the characters are not, is done by the bushel and not by the mere bouquet. I’d have gladly traded any hour of jaw-dropping visual wonderment for more complicated character work and storytelling nuance.
As much as anything, the show’s natural prettiness feels like it’s intended as compensation for the human-driven ugliness. Watch 15 minutes of harrowing abuse — a differentiation seems to have been made between general violence, treated graphically, and sexual violence, unseen — and enjoy a sunset over a meteor crater or an entanglement of foliage meant to represent “Hope may blind,” or something. This spreads the powerful message too thin over seven hours, however watchable Debnam-Carey and especially Browne keep the series.