Television

From the designer clothes to the covetable houses to the A-list cast, Big Little Lies is a quality potboiler. But beyond the gloss, the series explores deeper social issues in a refreshingly nuanced way. By Helen Razer.

Big Little Lies

Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman star in Big Little Lies.
Credit: Courtesy Foxtel

Sometimes, the lens captures what the pen just can’t. All claims that text could never be bettered on screen were reversed for good back in 1972 when the novel The Godfather became a film. Those particular chapters were, perhaps, always destined for the camera; the story goes that author Mario Puzo was so eager to repay a gambling debt, he bet a then half-written story on a cheap movie option. Whatever the foggy legend, it’s clear that no writer could convey the dark heart and sharp suits of this New York crime family so well as Francis Ford Coppola. That book was always going to find its truest, and most violent, expression on screen, rather like Australian author Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.

This book, a creditable 2014 work of mum-lit, may have been transplanted by its American producers from Sydney’s northern beaches to California’s toney central coast. The look of its protagonists, however, hasn’t really changed. Fans of the quality potboiler are not disappointed by the set and costume design, and nor is the author. It’s reported that during filming, Moriarty was reduced to grateful tears when she saw that Celeste, played to deservedly breathless review by Nicole Kidman, was dressed exactly as described in print. Moriarty cried to see her Celeste come to life. The rest of us cried to see Celeste so cruelly brutalised by her husband, Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgård.

To be moved by the perfect look of Celeste, or of the perfect interiors she inhabits, is not, by any means, to detract from the theme of intimate partner violence that fuels both the book and the new seven-part series. Rather, it’s to applaud popular American screen at its visual peak. Without the purchase of his homburg hat, the transformation of Michael Corleone wouldn’t have been half as scary. Without her walk-in closet of La Perla smalls and Gucci silks, Celeste would not haunt us so fully. If this character were not so meticulously constructed by the visual, it would not be so distressing to see her come apart.

There is an immediate Pinterest appeal to this show’s expensive beauty: gleaming kitchen islands in absolute beachfront properties; ideal cafe mornings in which no filthy rich, supremely fit super-mother counts the calories or the cost; the clothes, my goodness, the clothes. But this show uses the elaborate female visual language established by Sex and the City with uncommon menace. It’s a real pleasure, of course, to see Reese Witherspoon as Madeline – an extraordinary performance, as if Elle Woods from Legally Blonde had been raised by a Californian encounter group – in a dazzling range of Dolce & Gabbana dresses. It’s a real shock to see such commodities turn on the women who own them.

In an early scene, Madeline interrupts her picturesque school run to rebuke a car full of swerving teenagers. When one of these turns out to be her own peevish daughter, the perky housewife is brought down by footwear. It’s true that Carrie Bradshaw had occasional trouble with strappy sandals, and the Sarah Jessica Parker character would often joke about the sacrifices she made for fashion. But the women of Big Little Lies are so utterly sold to the economy of appearances, there can no longer even be a question of sacrifice. In Monterey, a woman doesn’t do towering heels for fun; they’re fused to her body.

This is a town of families that function like corporations. A few of the mothers actually helm corporations, notably Renata, played by Laura Dern, who tells her school-run fellows “I joined the board of PayPal” with the same false humility another woman might use to hint at her baking skills. But the careful cultivation of confidence and allies is a full-time job for every woman in this wealthy town whose industry is the social reproduction of children, preferably gifted ones.

The passages in Moriarty’s book that describe this affective labour are marvellous and make it to the screen intact. High-end helicopter parenting is a strange practice and that there are women who use their children’s birthday parties as personal positioning statements makes for great TV. It does not make for shallow sexist TV, per Desperate Housewives, to which the series is often compared, however. What we have here is not a bunch of women so bored that they obsess about their kids’ nut allergies or playground networking skills. These are not shallow, silly girls, but people deeply enslaved to the maintenance of wealth. A wealth so demanding it can snap your ankle.

While Moriarty has written a bourgeois novel that serves largely to pacify us poorer folk with tales of the true pain of privilege, the series goes much further. We don’t just think “poor little rich girl” when we see the ugliness of Celeste’s marriage. We do see that the violence is partially shaped by wealth – Perry’s rage plays out visually against a set of suffocating perfection that his money has built and his unconscious seeks to destroy – but also that the truth of this horror runs across classes.

The young actor Shailene Woodley plays Jane, a fish-out-of-water character who quickly becomes the working-class pet of friends Madeline and Celeste. Jane has also been subject to brutal male violence, and the story of its resolution runs alongside Celeste’s. It’d be a terrible spoiler to note the fine ambiguity introduced to Jane’s history by series screenwriter David E. Kelley. But let’s just say that the screen account of violence against women has more social breadth than the text.

This is not to malign the much-loved book. Through Moriarty’s novel many women could stare down the common experience of violence through fun and frothy prose. It’s easier to see it that way. Few writers of fiction can take the reader from the desolation that follows spousal abuse to a Disney on Ice show and wrap it all up in a murder melodrama. Few writers of any kind can set down in text the emotional nature of family violence.

There are perspectives on violence conveyed in this A-list production that cannot, perhaps should not, be canvassed in popular press. While there has been a great and welcome focus by journalists on family violence in recent years, there has been a necessary absence of the confusion this violence produces in everyday lives. Journalism is the place to unambiguously demand changes to policy settings. Big Little Lies sees the real-life confusion from a safer distance.

Celeste adores her husband. He rips her apart, trashes their Zen decor and afflicts his sons with a terrible disorder, it is hinted, that he first acquired himself as a victim. Still, she loves him, and the shock here is that the viewer can sympathise. The question “why doesn’t she just leave?” is answered in a way that would persuade anyone but Mark Latham of its inherent complexity. It’s not only finances. It’s not only fear. It’s not only children that bind women to their abusers. It is on screen as nowhere else that the violence and resentment underscoring some heterosexual love can be depicted.

There are, if you care to see them, dark shades here of older radical feminist texts, such as those by Andrea Dworkin or Catharine MacKinnon. It is often understood that writers such as these held women responsible for their own abuse. Rather, in my reading, they sketched the way in which both women and men unconsciously reproduce social and intimate brutality. These were, however naive, early feminist descriptions of a violence that was not aberrant but usual. You do not overcome the violence by an act of individual will. You overcome it by dismantling the structures that produce it.

This is both the strength and the horror of Big Little Lies. No matter how noble the intentions of our heroines, they are doomed by the society and the marriages they inhabit to fail. No person and no object is untouched by the world that women and men uphold. Not even a child is innocent for long. Madeline’s adolescent daughter, Abigail, attempts to trade her virginity online for a charitable donation. Her youngest, Chloe, is a kindergarten DJ who learns to modify her parents’ moods through playlists. In the hands of Perry, Lego becomes a weapon. Through the collective effort of the community, primary school events become cruel moments of adult initiation, and even a crime scene.

Lest you have begun to suppose that this short series, directed by Witherspoon’s collaborator on Wild, Jean-Marc Vallée, is a dense lesson in morality, don’t. It is, per the novelist’s intention, a gripping whodunit. All the wry jokes about children with pretentious names and adults with odd class pretensions make it from the text to the screen, and anyone who has ever briefly loathed another parent for their conceit will take pleasure in many moments.

But, there’s an exploration of horror here of the type than can only be enacted on screen. Just as The Godfather gave us reason to be unsettled not only about stylish crime bosses we’d never meet but also ourselves, Big Little Lies offers the same virtuosic discomfort.

 

Arts Diary

 

VISUAL ART Passages

Contemporary Art Tasmania, Hobart, April 28-May 28

THEATRE The Realistic Joneses

Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, Melbourne, April 25-May 28

COMEDY Sydney Comedy Festival

Venues throughout Sydney, April 24-May 21

MUSIC Groovin the Moo

Maitland Showground, NSW, April 29

CINEMA For Film’s Sake Festival

Venues throughout Sydney, April 26-30

MUSIC Surfers Paradise LIVE 2017

Surfers Paradise Beach, April 28-30

MUSIC Spooky Men’s Chorale

City Recital Hall, Sydney, April 26

Melbourne Recital Centre, April 29

The Capital, Bendigo, April 30

Last chance

MUSIC The Blurst of Times

Various venues, Brisbane, April 29

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 22, 2017 as "Desolate housewives". Subscribe here.

Helen Razer
is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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