This review contains spoilers following the screening of The Beautiful Lie on ABC1.
“You get away with everything, just because you’re a man. All you ever do is hold a baby and everyone says, ‘Oh, wow! What a great dad.’ People expect so little of you.”
“Yeah – and I still disappoint everybody. It’s my downfall. Yours is that you’re never satisfied.”
It’s a conversation between The Beautiful Lie‘s protagonist Anna (Sarah Snook) and her brother Kingsley (Daniel Henshall) that sums up the dramatic to’s and fro’s of the six piece Australian remake of Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina. The series finale, airing on the ABC on Sunday night brought all the emotional deterioration taking hold of Snook’s Anna to a miserable end, though not surprising if you’re aware of the original source material.
Over the past six weeks, Australian audiences have been completely taken in by the drama, the quality of which easily follows in the footsteps of other arresting homegrown productions of recent years including Glitch, Party Tricks and The Slap. A solid cast of established Australian TV actors alongside some fresh and familiar faces sets this contemporary retelling of the Russian classic up to look elegant, realistic and attractive. Written by Alice Bell and Jonathan Gavin, The Beautiful Lie tells the story of yes, a passionate love, but doesn’t shy away from exposing the harsh realities of the whirlwind affair that sets the whole series in motion.
The TV adaptation remains largely true to Anna Karenina: instead of portraying an influential Russian couple and their circle, The Beautiful Lie introduces the audience to Anna and Xander Ivin (Rodger Corser), married tennis stars happily married and living with their young son Kaspar (Lewis Fletcher) in a spacious house in the affluent Melbourne suburbs. In direct contrast to the Ivins’ clean cut home life is Kingsley and Dolly Faraday’s (Celia Pacquola) ramshackle and adultery-struck marriage. Providing a brilliant comic element to the series, Henshall and Pacquola’s navigation of what can only be described as an unconventional marital set up onscreen is by far one of the more entertaining journeys to witness. The third relationship we’re introduced to in the opening episode adds to what becomes a twisted love tree; Dolly’s flighty and self-centered younger sister Kitty (Sophie Lowe) and the indulgent and intoxicating Skeet Du Pont (Benedict Samuel). It’s a quick and compelling way in which the action unfolds early in The Beautiful Lie that wasted no time in sucking us in and falling completely under its spell.
As the series continues, the pace travels along rapidly once Anna and Skeet’s affair is exposed. No sooner has Anna been kicked out of the family home, she finds herself living in the rundown house Skeet uses also as a recording studio and (perhaps surprisingly) pregnant. Kingsley and Dolly have moved to the country to repair their marriage, while Kitty begins the road to personal enlightenment and maturity by following her sister and falling in love with long time admirer Peter (Alexander England). Everything moves so quickly, the viewer is made to feel as uncomfortable as Anna is and yet, it’s nigh on impossible to draw your eyes away from the action unfolding.
Looking at the story in its basic form – we’re watching a married woman throw security, happiness, a career and her family to the wind in chasing the promises and the passionate romance offered by a handsome stranger. And really, Skeet makes it hard to say no; he’s young, attractive and is driven by emotion. What’s more, is that he is intensely captivated by Anna and, as her brother points out in Episode Six, hers is a character that still cannot be satisfied.
Anna truly loses everything and her choices become more magnified once she falls pregnant; from her pained and distressed cries for Xander while she’s suffering a traumatic childbirth, the refusal and rejection she receives from Kaspar and the paranoia that begins engulfing her when she notices Skeet’s attention shifting more towards musician Theresa (Ali Barter). You feel sorry for Anna but at the same time, the acting and dialogue makes it hard to feel empathy for the woman. Even Skeet’s mother Tess (Catherine Clements) doesn’t offer support, telling a hysterical Anna, “I would never tell you to choose a man over your child. You always choose your children.”
Running concurrently to the main relationship build up and breakdown are, of course, the other two main couples and thanks to some clever writing, both Kingsley and Dolly and Kitty and Peter are given their own ample time in the spotlight, their relationships provided with room to breathe and develop on their own. Theirs supply a much-needed escape from the Anna/Skeet/Xander drama – whether it’s watching Kingsley and Dolly getting stoned in a bathtub reminiscing about their honeymoon or witnessing Kitty and Peter prepare for the arrival of their own child, there are elements of both couples that make them so refreshing to watch.
Casting Pacquola as Dolly was as inspired a move as was casting Gina Riley as the Ballantyne matriarch Catherine – having these two comic actresses take ‘serious’ acting turns paid off brilliantly. Both exuded charm without having their sharp sense of comic timing hidden away. Sophie Lowe’s Kitty was as irritating as most likely intended and even though she matures through her relationship with the much more grounded Peter, she essentially remains the same flighty 20-something, though the wool has very much been removed from her eyes.
Another highlight The Beautiful Lie is no doubt going to be remembered for is Marlon Williams’ performance as Dylan, the musician Skeet spends the majority of the season recording. Admittedly, Williams isn’t straying far from what he knows – an incredibly talented musician and vocalist already, the material he performs within the context of the show are songs fans will be well aware of. However, in the melancholic and dark country tones his voice sends rippling through the large house, the show receives poignant moments of soundtrack – particularly in the delivery of “Heaven For You, Prison For Me” in the series finale.
As a standalone production, The Beautiful Lie definitely ranks up there as one of the best Australian dramas screened in some time. There are delicate nuances laid down through the six episodes that highlight feelings of regret, helplessness, love and impulsiveness – all on a realistic enough level many viewers will undoubtedly relate to in some way. By having Snook narrate certain parts of each episode, The Beautiful Lie stands out as a rather intimate adaptation of Anna Karenina as opposed to a direct blow by blow but, if you’ve been sucked in by the compelling episodes of TV as many were, you’d much prefer the story told in this fashion.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Beautiful Lie is out now on DVD.