I'm really sorry I'm writing my reviews for Best Actor in a Leading Role 2016 in such a slow pace, but unfortunately I've been really busy lately and I didn't have the chance the movies I needed to. I will soon be able to write as often as I used to, but not quite yet. In the meantime, though, I decided to review HBO's new miniseries, "Big Little Lies", which, with its critical and commercial success and its all-star cast is pretty much bound to get quite a few nominations at the next Emmys. Let's see what I think about it.
Before watching the series, I actually had not idea what to expect. I really liked Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club, but I found Wild to be an uneven mess and despite my best intentions I never managed to find the will to finish Demolition (as good as Jake Gyllenhaal was, it was really poor); but the cast was filled with actors/actresses I tend to like and admire, so I decided to give it a shot: and right from the first episode, I was absolutely hooked.
The plot revolves around three women who live in Monteray, California: Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is a strong-willed, sassy, tart-tongued woman dealing with two daughters, her marriage with the kind-hearted but not particularly exciting Ed (Adam Scott) and her jealousy for her ex-husband's (James Tupper) new wife, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), who seems to have a close bond with Madeline's elder daughter; Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is a retired lawyer who lives a seemingly perfect life but is actually a victim of domestic abuse; Jane (Shailene Woodley) is a young, single mom who has moved Monteray for mysterious reasons and whose little son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) is accused of bullying Amabella, the daughter of Renata (Laura Dern), a fellow mother at the primary school who often clashes with Madeline. The miniseries follows their events in their lives leading up to the Trivia Night, a charity event at which a murder occurs, though the viewer does not know either who is the victim or who is the killer.
I get that the plot itself might sound a little too much like a soap opera but, surprisingly enough, the series never indulges in needless melodrama: it's a surprisingly compelling and intimate portrayal of these women's life, dealing with topics like domestic abuse, rape and bullying in a thoughtful manner that is both delicate and raw and most importantly never shallow, and exploring themes like parenthood and the influence that parents have on their children in a very interesting and original fashion. Apparently one of the most divisive points about the series is the screenplay, written by David E. Kelley, and I perfectly get the criticism: not all of the dialogues work (in the first few episodes there are a couple of monologue thrown at Witherspoon' character that verge on cringe-worthy) but ultimately I think its strengths override its flaws rather easily. The writing in the first few episodes feels often a bit artificial and overly stylized, but I think it's intentional considering how much these women tend to cover up their true selves - Madeline hides her insecurities behind her shades and one-liners, Celeste cover up her physical bruises with make-up and the emotional ones with a graceful, poised façade, Jane tries to bury her past trauma inside her and Renata's self-confidence actually hides a woundrous vulnerability. As the series progresses and these women's lives unravel, the dialogue grows realer and rawer, with the scenes between Celeste and her therapist being an absolute masterclass in writing (and acting, but more about that later on).
Jean-Marc Vallée's directing is also terrific as he manages to blend so well many different genres into ones: he handles the dark comedy of the series impeccably as he gives them a slightly more light-hearted tone without ever compromising the darkness of the remaining scenes and he makes the mystery side of the show extremely compelling and interesting to watch (I was literally on the edge of my seat throughout the whole final episode). But most importantly he treats his characters with profound respect - what I love is that Vallée gives every actor his time to shine and never allows any character to feel underwritten or underused. He treates the series' important topics in a delicate, intimate way that never feels heavy-handed. And, also thanks to the terrific cinematography, he manages to capture the beauty of the landscape in a truly impressive fashion - Madeline's monologue about the sea's symbolism is totally unneded because the camera says it all. The frequent shots of the ocean add a feeling of wild unpredictability until the end, when it just gives you a welcome sensation of peace. The scattershot editing, full of flashbacks and flashfowards, gives the series a thrilling, chaotic feeling that makes it all the more absorbing from start to finish.
But of course the series wouldn't work as well if it wasn't for its cast. Reese Witherspoon is an actress I usually enjoy but that I find only occasionally truly terrific - and this is definitely one of those times. The role is tailor-made for her and she does an absolutely riveting job with the character - she is the one who gets the juiciest dialogue and she is fully aware of it. She brings the needed sass, confidence and wit to the role and each of her one-liners couldn't be more hilarious - we already knew she had an excellent comedic timing, but it rarely has been used better. But she also digs deep into the role, and behind every shade thrown there is a painful hint of bitterness and sadness. Witherspoon is extremely moving at portraying Madeline's fears of losing her daughters as they grow up and her feelings for her husband Ed, whom she loves even if she thinks that the passion between them has somewhat waned. It's an interesting character study and Witherspoon really makes the most out of this scene-stealing role.
The MVP though is without a question Nicole Kidman: she has always been a fearless, brave actress but this performance is seriously on par with Dogville as her best performance ever. She never shies away from the ugly truth of domestic abuse: instead, she does not hold back anything and she dares you to keep looking. Kidman delivers an absolutely devastating performance as Celeste, communicating a lot with her eyes alone - she is a graceful, quiet, elegant presence whenever she shows up but in her gaze you can see the history of the character. It's a very subtle, internalized performance in which every small detail count: her physical acting is something astonishing, as she always carries herself in an uncomfortable fashion as if every single part of her body was aching; but she's even more effective at portraying the psychological effects that the abuses have on her: Kidman is absolutely phenomenal as she explores Celeste's psyche, portraying her as someone who is constantly rewriting the story in her head, trying to find excuses for her husband's behavior and placing on herself non-existent blame. Her conversations with her therapist (Robin Weigert in a compassionate, intelligent performance) are absolutely brilliant and Kidman's acting is painfully and brutally honest. She handles her character's arc, as Celeste slowly drifts away from her husband's influence, impeccably and gives a thoroughly heartbreaking performance that should win the Emmy hands down.
As Jane, Shailene Woodley also delivers a great performance that should not be ignored: she might get a couple of awkward line-deliveries that feel a little too rehearsed, but otherwise she delivers a top notch portrayal of her character's own plight. She is subtly devastating at portraying Jane's inner turmoil due to her past trauma but she also does an amazing job at showing how Jane actually manages to find herself in Monteray: she grows progressively more confident and more comfortable - Woodley portrays this transition in such a subtle manner that you almost don't notice but when you see her in the last episode, dressed like Audrey Hepburn and smiling radiantly, you finally see how much she has changed since the first episode. And she also shares an amazing chamistry with the terrific Iain Armitrage, who plays her son Ziggy: together they find some of the series' most touching and heartrending moments.
Laura Dern is absolutely fantastic as Renata, who is probably one of the show's most complicated characters. She is a character you are supposed to hate but also to be entertained by, and Dern solves this task brilliantly: she is hilarious at portraying Renata's phony, fake attitude towards everyone while also being properly vicious as Renata tries to ostracize Jane and Ziggy. But as the series progresses, Dern manages to make you see the humanity in Renata, even creating a certain understanding for her actions: she does some extremely subtle, intelligent acting in the final two episodes revealing an unexpectedly honorable side of the character that we would not have imagined in the first few episodes. It's quite an amazing performance because she makes so much out of what could have been a grating caricature and she would be a very worthy winner in the supporting category.
Out of the female characters in Big Little Lies, Bonnie might look like the least interesting and least complicated one but thanks to Zoe Kravitz she manages to be one of the show's most fascinating. Next to the other characters, the genuinely good-hearted, altruistic Bonnie could have been extremely boring but Kravitz delivers such a beautiful performance that she manages not to be overshadowed: she brings such a welcome sincerity and peacefulness to the character of Bonnie it's just wonderful to have her on-screen and she makes every single second of her performance count due to how lived in her portrayal is. The mini-series does not explore Bonnie's backstory like the book did, but it is not needed as Kravitz' performance works perfectly the way it is and does not feel incomplete in the slightest.
As Celeste's abusive husband Perry, Alexander Skarsgard delivers an absolutely excellent performance: Perry could have easily been a one-note monster, but Skarsgard makes him a very fascinating and complicated figure. Skarsgard brings a painful sincerity to the few moments in which his character reflects on his actions and genuinely feels guilty for them, but then he is absolutely terrifying in the scenes depicting the abuses - he is such a frightening presence that I found myself feeling uncomfortable every time he showed up. He's that good. Skarsgard is an actor who is very charismatic, which works perfectly for the role - his charm makes you understand why Celeste would not want to leave him, even if his depiction of his character's behavior is totally uncompromising and brutal. Skarsgard never shies away from the fact that Perry is indeed a monster, but he makes him an incredibly human one as well, which is even more frightening and disturbing.
As Madeline's husband Ed, Adam Scott is extremely good as he makes for such a genuinely sweet, heartwarming presence on-screen, sincerely portraying his character love for his wife, but also being very touching at portraying his growing fear that she might not love him as much as he does love her. It's a very moving performance and his chemistry with Witherspoon is absolutely top notch, with the two actors realizing so well their characters' relationship. James Tupper as Nathan, Madeline's ex-husband and Bonnie's husband, is entertainingly smug and Jeffrey Nordling brings the needed sort of arrogance and superficiality to the role of Gordon, Renata's husband.
I could see why the mystery's resolution could be disappointing to some: the identity of the victim might be a little predictable to some, and the motivations of the murderer might feel a little too weak. I personally don't think so, but even if I did, I don't think I would mind that much because ultimately the murder is not really what the show is about. The show is about the vulnerabilities but especially the strength of its female characters, about compassion, allegiance and solidarity, and the ending proves it. I get why not everyone would like this show, but personally I loved it: by the end of it, not only I cared about all of the characters, but I felt like I really got to know them.