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The Beautiful Lie (ABC TV): Tolstoy gets the Offspring treatment

There’s one integral aspect of the ABC’s new six-part drama The Beautiful Lie which is not obvious in its promos: it’s essentially a comedy. Or at least by late 19th century Russian standards, when Chekhov, Gogol and Gorky were focused on the foibles and ennui of Russia’s upper classes. It’s not going to trigger a laugh a minute, but this infidelity drama follows an almost Chekhovian template where tragedy and comedy work in concert.

Penned by Alice Bell and Jonathan Gavin, the series is based on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The action has been moved to Melbourne today, with Russia’s aristocracy replaced by Australia’s own version of aristocracy: our former sporting legends.

Sarah Snook stars as Anna Ivin (Karenina in Tolstoy’s novel), a recently-retired tennis champion, married to Xander (played by Rodger Corser), another retired tennis champion and one of the nation’s favourite sporting heroes. Things between the pair seem quite comfortable and relatively happy, but when she meets Skeet du Pont (Benedict Samuel) at an airport, there’s an immediate spark she hasn’t felt in years. When Anna and Skeet witness a horrific accident together, a bond forms which pushes Anna to reevaluate her life choices and relationship with Xander.

The series is produced by John Edwards and Imogen Banks, the team behind Offspring, and while there’s a slick aesthetic similarity, these are two very different series, bound to attract quite different audiences.

Snook delivers a solid performance, Corser is powerful and Samuel fascinates with his urban, metro hipster vibe. But it’s the supporting cast who will win over the viewers. While there’s little that’s new in the central love triangle, the relationship dramas around the edges — both of the elites and the not-so elites — are charmingly quirky.

There are some excellent performances from comedian Celia Pacquola, who’s adding more crayons to her box with a more “serious” acting role after Utopia, Sophie Lowe, and Gina Riley as the wealthy, inner-suburbs mother.

There’s one brilliant scene in which the young, privileged Kitty (Sophie Lowe) has just been abandoned by her fiancee at their engagement party. She sits alone on her kitchen floor, surrounded by food scraps, stuffing her engagement cake into her mouth with her hands. We later find out that she suffers from an eating disorder, but it’s a sharply observed moment of comedy. Her mother, Catherine (Gina Riley) enters the kitchen, discovering Kitty, who says, “cake?” Catherine responds, “there’s nothing funny about this.”

Like I said: a comedy.

There are occasional tonal imbalances, but that’s not surprising given how rare this style of storytelling is on the Australian small screen and how difficult the elements are to balance — this is not like Offspring, where sincerity throws forward awkward laughs, this is a beast with tragically existential undertones which are unavoidably humorous.

But this is a very slick and well-acted production, even with the occasional bumps in the script. This review is only based upon the first three episodes which were available to preview at the time of writing, but knowing the inevitable conclusion gives the show a contained quality. Even when it dwells in awkward silences or the deliberately spare writing, there’s a tension and a momentum which should keep viewers engrossed across the whole series.

The Beautiful Lie begins on Sunday, October 18 at 8.30pm on ABC TV

24 responses to “The Beautiful Lie (ABC TV): Tolstoy gets the Offspring treatment

  1. I enjoyed the show and its take on translating Tolstoy to Toorak. However, I found Skeet an improbable source of obsessive love — particularly because his mouth was constantly open for the entire 6 episodes and therefore I could not buy his character at all. However, I thought the show was good and looked forward to Sunday nights and believe the writers did a great job. But the casting director needed to find someone with actual charisma for the role of Skeet and thus a better reason for Anna to leave her husband and child. Even his name is a turn off, given that the characters generally follow the Tolstoy naming pattern.

  2. A very powerful adaptation of Tolstoy’s story. One repeated so many times throughout history: tragic, beautifully acted and portrayed. Women need to understand that men move on quickly. Think carefully before giving up security and status for a brief interlude.

  3. i know there’s supposed to be chemistry between anna and ‘skeet’, but it is not coming across for me. and it’s frustrating. the problem is definitely ‘skeet’ for me. AK ‘adaptation’? can’t say i care much. sans the ‘skeet’ scenes, which i can’t bear to watch (even at maximum belief suspension), this is an engaging enough aussie drama.

  4. I’m watching this for the great acting, but I found the script full of cliches, the ‘counsellor speak’ starting to settle in (eg psychological speak, which I think is a technical language rather an artistic or everyday one), and cringe-worthy grandiosity. Ever since Oprah’s interviewing style, everyone wants to be a Great Wise Philosopher or Counsellor. Why not speak/write normally and slave over the script to make it unique and artistic, without the overblown-ness that’s creeping everywhere into the Australian language – and maybe something impacting will happen as a result.

  5. I don’t get the raving over this show either. It’s watchable but if you don’t understand the parallels to AK then some things just seem highly improbable. The ‘bonding’ of Anna and Skeet over the death at the airport just didn’t come across at all. I think the casting of Skeet is not right – to tear a married 30 something celebrity away from her child and amazing lifestyle would surely take someone quite exceptional. Some of the plot twists which seem contrived to bring about certain result – just don’t seem realistic. Would a security guard really call the police if they thought they saw a famous celebrity using coke at a charity auction? And would the police actually turn up – inside 10 minutes?

  6. It was Ok. Love Snooks and Riley – both fabulous actors. And Pascquola is fast becoming one of my favourite Australian actresses.

    But Samuel (Skeet)? He is just completely wrong in the role and there appears to be no chemistry between him and Snooks. He seems to say all of his lines with an open mouth/ surprised look expression which is just…off. And unlike the Count Alexei in Anna Karenina, you just get the feeling he is a sleazy creep who will bonk any woman rather than a man totally transformed and obsessed by love. And yes I know, Alexei was also a sleazy creep but not until much later in the plot and only after Anna becomes a bit a pain in the behind.

    I think it would have been a great series if samuels was played differently and by someone different.

    1. Totally agree with you about Samuel. I think we’re supposed to find him windswept and interesting but he just comes across as vacant. As a consequence Snook’s obsession with him makes her look shallow. But my fundamental problem with the show is that the stakes feel too low. The relationships are so damaged from the get go that I thought these people were all better off without each another.

  7. Just watched this last night. I dont know AK but I hope its a fair bit better than this. I think my main issue is Skeets character. Skeet gets grilled by his fiance and for spending the entire night with Snooks at his own engagement party and then just runs straight out after her? Snooks seems happily married and has a big barrier to having a fling i.e. a child but as soon as she spies a Fabio (Skeet) she opens her legs in all of 30 seconds? What?

    I just dont get him and in fact a lot of the motivations just dont ring true or I just dont care about the people involved. Still I am going to give it another ep and see how it goes. My favourite scenes were the ones with Gina Riley in them and around the family table.

    Ciao Ciao

    Fabio

  8. I found that The Beautiful Lie was not true to the whole point of Anna Karenina, i.e. the effect of the strictures and double standards of that allegedly ‘privileged’ society on one woman, who only wanted to have both the person she loved, and her son, in her life at the same time.
    It seems to me that it is probably not possible to transplant Anna Karenina into our modern society as we live in one where women have the freedom to leave their husbands etc. In such a context, the story is simply a soap opera about an affair (albeit well acted). Anna Karenina is so much more than that and I was therefore deeply disappointed in The Beautiful Lie.

  9. am I other only one who finds this show sexist?
    Reverse the roles – a 40yo male, retired sports star gets in a forbidden relationship with a soon to be related, beautiful young woman.

    It certainly wouldn’t be a produced and marketed as an edgy, sexy show with themes of love, passion and human connection. ‘Australian show of the year’ I’ve heard. And if it was, imagine the uproar from the lefties, feminists and PC police.

    The man would be portrayed as a creep and the young woman a victim.
    Complete double standard.

  10. What a lot of weird comments – especially from people who haven’t actually seen the show.

    Yes, Billy. It’s about marriage infidelity. Much like every American drama is about murder, and every Australian soap opera is about high school romances. Your point is?

    I liked the first episode. It’s nicely directed, there is not too much dialogue, and it has Sarah Snook who is outstanding in the role.

    1. Andy, don’t you find it a little tiresome that every Australian TV show and movie has a marital infidelity plot or subplot somewhere in it? Don’t you hanker for something a little different every now and then? Perhaps the rest of the world would take our film and TV more seriously if we tackled something more original.

      1. Sure beats cooking or reno shows.
        I’ll take homegrown adult drama any day no matter who it’s inspired by or in what room the action happens.
        The Beautiful Lie is great. I discovered it yesterday on iview and have watched all 5 eps back to back. It really drew me in, i love comedic moments and am looking forward to the rest of the series.

  11. Why re-write Tolstoy? I don’t get it. Anna Karenina, which many regard as the finest realist novel ever written, surely didn’t need ‘updating’ by two unknown Australians.

    Although I won’t be watching this production as the very notion of the bastardization of AK is offensive to me, it’s good that there’s some work for Australian actors. Just a pity that there’s nothing Australian which the ABC deems worthy or suitable to present to its Australian audience.

    1. Well actually — I’m a sceptic converted by the first episode.

      It’s not trying to rewrite AK, the scriptwriters (they are Australian fGs) have been too smart for that; it uses the AK framework and does the combination of human frailty and inexorable events neatly, I thought. Plus wry humour and comedy when you’re least expecting it. I’m yet to be convinced the leads have ever played a lot of sport, but that doesn’t matter much.

      1. Agree with your comment about the sport and it just goes to my comment below, there was a fair bit of a credibility gap in the whole production.

  12. A lot of years ago I watched a BBC production of Tolstoy. Unfortunately it was in France, so what was dished up, was an english actress, flirting in english (which is quite different to french flirting), pretending to be Russian, dubbed into french. If you put enough polish into pretending, you might be believable, but that doesn’t make it true.

  13. Wow Billy that is a bit harsh. But you really do wonder why you would mangle Tolstoy when money is always short for local drama and there are lots of other wonderful Australian novels ripe for adaptation. Unlike the British we seem to have an aversion to our own literature. It was not always the case with the ABC.

    1. Yeah, that’s a good point. There are so many great Australian novelists whose work would adapt well, such as Patrick White, Christina Stead, Henry Handel Richardson, David Malouf, etc. Imagine a six-part version of Voss!

      But deep down you know that the only novelist whose work is going to be put on the small screen is Christos Tsiolkas. Someone at the ABC loves all that kinky sex, drug use and swearing.

  14. Wow, an Australian TV show about marital infidelity. I’ve never seen that before. It’s good to see the head honchos at the ABC commissioning something new.

    There’s even an eating disorder. Let me guess – there’s other Socially Relevant Stuff, like suicide, incest, alcoholism, petrol sniffing and domestic violence? It’s not a Worthy TV Show unless it deals with those Big Things, right? I bet there’s even a Compulsory Heroin Addict.

    And it goes without saying that there’s a scene where people scream at each other in the kitchen. It’s actually a requirement of the Australian Writers’ Guild that every TV or film script written in this country has at least one such scene.

    1. Calm down culture vultures. My wife and I watched and enjoyed the show.
      Don’t analyse it too much. It’s a timeless plot with an animated cast and beautifully produced.
      Don’t like it? You know what to do…

      1. I have to confess it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. It’s still just basically an adult soap opera. Didn’t see any petrol sniffing junkies, which is a good sign!

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