The young wives in Big Little Lies are not just desperate, they are practically suffocating.
HBO’s new drama, based on the novel by Australian author Liane Moriarty, has female friends at its epicentre, but dispense with any notion of melodrama. This is contemporary, challenging and makes you work.
The lead characters include Madeline (Reece Witherspoon) whose teen daughter is bonding with her ex-husband’s new wife; Celeste (Nicole Kidman) whose outwardly-perfect marriage to Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) has dark undertones; and Jane (Shailene Woodley), a newly-arrived mother of a child accused of bullying at a local school.
Renata (Laura Dern) also features as a sometimes-unhinged mother.
Set against a backdrop of sunny Monterey, California, their daily lives consist of school drop-offs, Skype calls, coffee, jogs along the beach, fitness class, quick sex, recreational drugs and helicopter parenting. It’s a never-ending parade of “Google this, Yahoo that.” Keeping up with modern existence requires a thick skin, and the ability to adapt.
“It’s like I’m on the outside looking in. I see this life and it seems so wonderful, but it’s like it doesn’t belong to me,” says Jane.
Little lies will become second nature, and a means of coping.
But imploding any perceived-harmony is a murder at a local fundraiser -though the victim and murderer are kept from us for now. This leads to police interrogation interviews spliced throughout the action, as fast-forwards.
“Things never blow over once Madeline gets involved. They blow up,” says one witness.
Making sense of the jarring narrative is a challenge, but the sum of the parts is skilfully presented as a whole by writer David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallee.
There’s no denying that this is a character piece, and that actors are given ample room to flex their attributes. Reece Witherspoon is particularly strong as the smiling yet neurotic Madeline, while Kidman’s Celeste is already demonstrating depression beneath the surface. It’s a shame she didn’t keep her Australian accent given the story’s Aussie roots. Watch for a cameo by Gia Carides.
If you have room then Big Little Lies is yet another layered drama that works like an episodic novel. We’ve moved on from the theatrics of Desperate Housewives, Weeds or even Suburban Shootout. This feels more grounded, and as a result, there’s a greater sense of unease about where it is headed.
Big Little Lies premieres 1pm Monday on Showcase.