TV review

Big Little Lies & Role Reversal

This isn’t going to be some whinge about how the TV mini-series isn’t faithful to the book, although there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Big Little Lies isn’t. The location change to Monterrey instead of Sydney is a shining example.

To my mind, this change of scenery tranquilises the severity of the domestic violence, school bullying, adultery, sexual assault and ultimately murderous themes of both works.  It’s not that I can’t believe these things actually happen in Sydney – they surely do - it’s more the fact that we Australians are spoon-fed an unending stream of American productions that focus on this type of darkness (think acronyms here - SVU, NCIS, CSI).  Heck, even the news of the latest real-life gun rampage seems to confirm that America is a location where this sort of stuff happens with vastly more regularity than here. I believe setting the book in Sydney was Moriarty’s master stroke. It’s dark twists and turns were somehow more shocking because of their usually sunny location.

But I digress.  I did say this wasn’t going to be a diatribe on the differences and merits of the book over the TV version and it isn’t.  No – what really surprised me was my reaction to the real and imagined age disparity in the casting of the two couples central to the story. These are Nicole Kidman as Celeste and her on-screen husband Alexander Skarsgård as Perry; and Madeline’s Reese Witherspoon and her on-screen husband Ed, played by a much younger-looking (but actually not younger than Reese) Adam Scott.

Normally I don’t care about those often awkward, age-disparate on-screen pairings that require a giant leap of faith on the part of the viewer.  God knows we’ve seen enough of them. Who could forget Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Key Largo, Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford in Up Close and Personal, Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Douglas in A Perfect Murder and even our own Nicole with Sam Neill in Dead Calm!

I also have no problem with actresses like Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon as executive producers, securing rights to books like Moriarty’s Big Little Lies with meaty female characters and then casting themselves in those plum roles in the screen version. Why not run the racket so you can start rigging it when the game’s been stacked against you for decades?  Actors of the male persuasion have been doing that for years (think Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper and more recently Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, producers of the acclaimed Night Manager).

More power to the women, I reckon.  But if I thought this empowerment might translate into less jolting age pairings of major characters, in the case of Big Little Lies, I was clearly mistaken.

In isolation, Nicole Kidman is ideally cast as the gorgeous, intelligent and wealthy Celeste, she of the seemingly ‘perfect life’.  That is until you put her next to her on-screen husband Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgård. While he is only nine years Kidman’s junior, alas (as beautiful as she is) Nicole looks so much older than Alexander.

Neither of them are miscast but their pairing made me focus more on how they looked together than how they played the parts of two people at the centre of one of the most disturbing concepts of the book and the show. That bothers me.

Then we come to Reese Witherspoon’s character, Madeline, who’s on-screen second husband Adam Scott (as Ed) is actually three years older than her and yet the pairing still doesn’t seem to work.  This may be due to the fact that, in the book version of the story, Madeline is a divorcée previously married to Nathan (played by James Tupper in the TV show) who, BTW, looks more aligned to Madeline in the age-stakes.

Maybe Adam Scott’s Ed is meant to look younger than Witherspoon’s Madeline in the TV version of the story because she is supposed to look like someone who’s been married before and is, perhaps, a little older than a previously unmarried first wife might be. But that can’t be right. As noted earlier, TV show narratives don’t always stick to the storyline of the books they’re based on. So, I guess we can rule that out as a reason for the apparent (but not real) age difference between Ed and Madeline in Big Little Lies.

Ironically, Reese Witherspoon is no stranger to this age-disparity thing. In 2004 she played the lead role of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. At the ripe old age of 27, Witherspoon was cast as the mother of Robert Pattison, aged 17 at the time.  The scenes between the two were cut from the final version of the film, which is probably fortunate as it didn’t impede a second outing for this pair in Water for Elephants in 2011. This time, Reese, Robert and their 10-year age difference, were cast as lovers.

I know what you’re thinking – I’m too stuck on the ironies of this age thing in Big Little Lies. Please believe me when I say I really don’t care.  Why should it even bother me that women characters are, these days, more often being paired with younger men when so often, it’s the other way around?

I guess is comes back to my need for credibility in on-screen drama – credibility that is underpinned by appropriate casting that helps me suspend my disbelief about the fictional storyline. For some reason this is particularly so when the screen story is based on a book I’ve already read. I fully accept that the screenplay I watch will not mirror the exact storyline of the book for such reasons as timeframe, nuance or plot intricacy that impedes ‘watchability’. I’m happy to be surprised, delighted even, by the accurate screen representation of people and things I loved in the book, as well as the adjustments and additions to the print storyline that make the viewing more compelling.

But sometimes, little things like age-disparity in the casting (perceived or otherwise) seriously undermines my ability to believe in the screen story and indeed, my interest in what happens to the characters themselves. Instead of getting lost in the fascinating depths of Celeste and Perry’s complex and violent relationship, I find myself pre-occupied with an entirely superficial and yet very distracting age difference.

And instead of applauding Kidman and Witherspoon for successfully subverting the culture of man/girl on-screen couplings in Hollywood, I confess to being a little disappointed. As executive producers of Big Little Lies, couldn’t these acclaimed actresses have demonstrated just a bit more finesse in the casting department?

Click here to buy your copy of ‘Big Little Lies’ by Liane Moriarty from Booktopia.