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Big Little Lies is much more than Mean Girls grown up

From left: Shailene Woodley, Reece Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies. Photo: ShowcaseThe difference between cliche and spine-tingling authenticity depends on the writing. And in Big Little Lies (Mondays, 1pm and 8.30pm, Showcase) writer David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallee breathe terrifying new life into Liane Moriarty’s already compelling novel, transforming it from gripping prose into a stunning television series.
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The cliche here is that these women – Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Jane (Shailene Woodley), Renata (Laura Dern), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) – could just be the cast of Mean Girls or Heathers, all grown up. They’re pretty, but they don’t always play nice. And everything in Monterey, California, where the series is set, is picture postcard perfect. But it’s not.

The spine-tingling authenticity comes as Kelley and Vallee, working from the template of Moriarty’s original work, which has been transplanted from its native n beachfront to the almost identical California coast, turn these characters from one-dimensional figures into complex, and uncomfortably real, women.

Vallee, in particular, directs with a broad palette of tones. Everything in Big Little Lies is transparent and reflective: the giant windows in the luxurious homes these women inhabit, the vast ocean, which is the setting for the story, and even the women themselves. They are at once obvious and then wholly surprising; both see-through and brutal mirrors, in whose reflection each eventually sees herself.

There is a faint story thread here – a murder mystery, the details of which we will not delve into for spoilery reasons – but to some extent that’s a McGuffin. What matters more than whether it was Miss Scarlet in the drawing room with the candlestick is the manner in which these women, who seem at first to have the kind of life to which we all aspire, begin to unravel.

As a writer, Kelley is perhaps best known for his early work on L.A. Law and later, Ally McBeal. He has a curious sensibility when it comes to legal dramas and even though Big Little Lies is not strictly in that genre, it lives on the fringes of that world. In truth its brilliant unpredictability is more like his writing on Boston Public and Boston Legal, where nuance of character took centre stage and pushed the tropes of traditional genre to the wings.

And perhaps in the hands of lesser actresses Big Little Lies might devolve into a kind of grown-up Mean Girls, but Witherspoon’s Madeline is so compellingly cruel, and her best friend Celeste (Kidman) so glacially obsessed with perfection that it’s hard to take your eyes off them. It would be easy, also, for an n newspaper to heap praise on Kidman, but her performance here is genuinely stunning, an echo of her brilliant performance in To Die For, and the compressed emotion and sense of unease that she brought to The Others.

It’s difficult to break open the deeper themes of Big Little Lies without spoiling the story, though if you’ve read the novel you will know, for the most part, what transpires. It’s slow, but deliberately so, and deeply soaked in a sense of the inevitable horror that is coming. And that subversion of perfection, and TV’s Hollywood ending, serves only to make the entire piece all the more compelling.

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