Culture

Film & Television

‘Big Little Lies’ bursts the bubble

By Claire Corbett
Why the TV adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel is not trashy soap but compelling drama

Perhaps, for some, the glossy trappings of success can obscure important stories. Big Little Lies, the HBO series made from Australian author Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel of secrets, passions and violence among mostly rich and beautiful families, deploys its stunning locations and cinematography to give a fairytale sheen to a gripping tale of modern anxieties.

But the lustrous surfaces, rendered in an aquamarine haze suitable for the beauty of its locations in Monterey, California, do not signal an escape from class or the troubles of the world – they mark engagement with it. The catalyst of the story among the quintet of main female characters is Jane (Shailene Woodley), a struggling single mother whose rented house is so small she and her son sleep on a fold-out bed in the living room.

The wealth and power on show function similarly to the way that fairytales use figures of kings and queens, princes and princesses. Ursula K Le Guin points out that the fairytale princess isn’t really a princess – she’s you. The archetypes of royalty are symbolic aspects of the developing self. The princess is perhaps the part that is growing into its role as a directing, executive function of the self, an aspect of the superego. The fairytale kingdom, with its fields and its forests needing wise oversight or at least order and direction, is also you.

So, in a story like Big Little Lies, the atmosphere of beauty and wealth allows for greater focus on internal battles and flaws rather than on the struggle for survival in a hostile environment. The fairytale is an internal drama externalised. Our modern kings and queens, rich and influential characters such as Renata (Laura Dern), a CEO, and beautiful power couple Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) and Celeste (Nicole Kidman, in the performance of her career), have only themselves to look to for the source of their problems.

The glamorous houses teetering on the edge of the Monterey coast contrast the apotheosis of modern luxury and up-to-date techno-accessories with the natural power of the waves below, reminding us that the elemental forces represented by pounding surf and vertiginous cliffs underpin the characters’ daily lives and form the stuff of their dreams – and nightmares. The raw energies of possession and desire, of work and money, of jealousy and maternal love and fear, drive everything we see on screen.

This also explains the ending, which reveals the circumstances that have driven the police investigation framing the story. The resolution is not remotely believable: evil has been destroyed and the world shows itself sunny and beautiful again. This is not a failure of drama or storytelling but rather a closing of the circle of fairytale. It’s an ending that performs the same function as the finales of even the grimmest fairytales depicting torture, murder and cannibalism, such as Bluebeard or Hansel and Gretel. It allows the viewer the strength to descend into real darkness, safe in the knowledge that the happy ending may lend them enough hope to do battle with the darkness in their own lives.

And the darkness in Big Little Lies is very real; the show gives us the most convincing and distressing portrayal of domestic violence I have ever seen. In a time when our polished, handsome and extraordinarily rich prime minister failed to fully redress the deep cuts to funding community legal and family violence services until this week, it is critical to have a series that shows how even middle-class and wealthy women find escaping violent and controlling men difficult. Even when such women can afford to escape, the danger can be extreme (as we know, it’s often when trying to leave that women and children are killed), and the temptation of persisting with illusions of control even more potent.

This portrayal is the more welcome because it tackles the stubborn myth that intimate violence is a problem mostly caused by economic and educational disadvantage and that violent men look inadequate to the outside world. But often they do not. Rapists and abusers can be handsome and charming, successful and intelligent. They can be the sort of man Skarsgård shows us in a portrayal that details the cringing need, the endless demand for affirmation, that underlies his violence and mania for control. It’s quite an achievement to take one of the sexiest men in show business and have him deliver a performance so creepy that the viewer starts to became anxious and even a little traumatised whenever he appears on screen, wishing only that he would go away.

The subtlety of Skarsgård and Kidman in showing us their love and hate, their attraction and repulsion and the thrill of power that violence gives both their characters at different moments in their relationship, was such that I found myself wondering if the actors too might have needed therapy, along with their characters. All of the performances in Big Little Lies are excellent but, as Jen Chaney stated in Vulture, “Kidman’s the ninja assassin of Big Little Lies. Her performance sneaks up on you, and then it destroys you.”

There has been talk in the press that, despite rave reviews, Big Little Lies has been sneered at by some, mostly male, critics as “trashy” and “soap” (in the New York Times no less, where the critic faults it for not being a police procedural – a classic case of critical failure in not judging a work on what it intends to achieve but by a different set of criteria and even the wrong genre). It is surprising that work dealing so compellingly with the trials of modern marriage and parenting could be dismissed so easily. Perhaps it’s the pleasure and beauty that makes critics suspicious.

Or is it, as Matilda Dixon-Smith claimed in the Sydney Morning Herald, just sexism, that whatever concerns women must be trivial? The New York Times’ critic described the Perry–Celeste storyline as straying into Fifty Shades of Grey territory. It is alarming to think that that book might now be the touchstone for any work dealing with ambiguity around abuse and used to dismiss anything dealing with the allure as well as the danger of violent men.

The fairytale structure won’t confuse most viewers even if it baffles some critics. The daily details of parenting in the affluent West ring true: the dramas in the playground, the rivalries and cliques, the anxieties over bullying, and the deeper currents of fear over passion and fidelity, of stress over work versus family. Even the detail of six-year-old Chloe (a luminous and smart-but-not-precocious performance by Darby Camp in a role that must mark her out for stardom along the lines of Kirsten Dunst) running her family’s entertainment and music from her iPhone was entirely believable.

Watching it, my husband and I were reminded again and again of so many things we’d experienced: snubs at the school gate and melodrama in the book club, furious calls after school with unfounded accusations of what someone’s child had said or done, useless interventions from bewildered teachers and principals.

Are men and women really so far apart in their concerns? Do most men spend their days worrying exclusively about macroeconomics, environmental collapse and military strategy, rather than, say, their own careers, families and love and sex? Somehow I doubt it. And I’m not implying that domestic issues and world-shaking concerns cancel each other out. On the contrary, they are deeply connected, and the forces that drive a character like Perry to violence or a child to bullying are enmeshed with the psychodramas we now see being played out so alarmingly and incoherently on the world stage.

Big Little Lies returns to Foxtel’s Showcase for an encore screening from 6 May and is streaming on Foxtel Go.

Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett is a journalist and the author of When We Have Wings. Her new novel, Watch Over Me, was recently published by Allen & Unwin.

www.clairecorbett.com

 

@ccorbettauthor

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