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'Big Little Lies' Is Possibly Nicole Kidman's Finest Achievement

She really shines in this compelling HBO miniseries.

14/04/2017 10:16 PM IST | Updated 20/04/2017 1:28 PM IST

HBO
Nicole Kidman as Celeste | HBO

Based on Liane Moriarty's darkly delicious bestseller of the same name, Big Little Lies is a deeply moving study of privilege, motherhood, female relationships, marriage and midlife crises. It also sustains a compelling mystery at its core.

Written and created by David E. Kelley and co-executive-produced by Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies brims with palpable tension—Kelley makes it a nail-biting whodunit by leaving the identity of the murdered and the murderer unknown until the last ten minutes. By using this stratagem, Kelley actively involves the viewers in mounting an intricate drama simmering with layers of biting suspense. However, even if one removes the mystery element Big Little Lies can hold its own as a fascinating series of case studies of each of its central characters.

Kidman's is one of the most delicately textured portrayals of domestic abuse I have ever seen.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée uses Kelley's fine writing to his advantage by layering detailed flashbacks between short clips of the catty cabal of Monterey, California. Vallée's astute direction is complemented by an extraordinary ensemble cast, including Reese Witherspoon as Madeline Martha Mackenzie, Nicole Kidman as Celeste Wright, Shailene Woodley as Jane Chapman, Alexander Skarsgård as Perry Wright, Adam Scott as Ed Mackenzie, Zoë Kravitz as Bonnie Carlson, James Tupper as Nathan Carlson, Jeffrey Nordling as Gordon Klein, and Laura Dern as Renata Klein.

While the men do play significant roles here, especially Skarsgård and Scott, women are the real heroes. Witherspoon's Madeline is a part-time theatre enthusiast and a full-time mom who looks down her nose at her more career-oriented counterparts. She doesn't hesitate to dispense cheesy lines such as, "I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets." She is mother to two beautiful girls—a teenager Abigail (Kathryn Newton) from her former husband Nathan and a six-year-old Chloe (Darby Camp) from her present spouse Ed. Nathan is now married to Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) and they have a beautiful six-year-old daughter Skye (Chloe Coleman), who happens to be the classmate of Chloe.

Kidman's Celeste is a woman of substance and a former lawyer who gave up her profession to marry Perry. She has a lot going in her favour but the contained passion on her face is a testament to something deep brimming underneath the lustrous surface. Perhaps this is because her husband frequently crosses the line between passion and obsession—which turns into physical violence at times. They have six-year-old twins, Josh (Cameron Crovetti) and Max (Nicholas Crovetti), who study in the same public school as Skye and Chloe.

Then there is Woodley's Jane, who is a younger single mom who recently moved to Monterey in the hopes of giving her son Ziggy a good education. Finally, we have Dern's Renata, who is a successful businesswoman. She is happily married to Gordon and has a daughter called Amabella (Ivy George), who on the first day of school accuses Ziggy of trying to choke her. Renata escalates the issue in no time, which strengthens Madeline and Jane's bond. Madeline is encouraged by the fact that Jane was being bullied by Renata. Amabella's accusation triggers a set of complex events that play out over the seven episodes of the series.

'Big Little Lies' scares you, gnaws at your emotions, and keeps you in a heightened state of tension. After watching it, I was emotionally drained.

Ultimately, Big Little Lies is a superlative tale of women who continuously get involved in petty power plays with chalices of wine (sometimes cappuccino) in their hands. However, their problems are fundamentally the same as everyone else, including acute loneliness and domestic abuse. With these recurring themes, the show serves up an exhilarating social satire sandwiched between a murder mystery and an emotional drama.

Believe me, the results are unusually satisfying.

HBO
Nicole Kidman as Celeste | HBO

Big Little Lies is also an excellent showcase for its stars, especially Nicole Kidman, who is remarkable as Celeste—a woman who masks her experience of domestic abuse behind a buoyant smile to preserve the illusion of a happy marriage.

Together the two actors are outstanding here, Skarsgård for his intense portrayal of a violent man, and Kidman for containing her anguish to the point where we wait for her to just explode. There are moments when Kidman's face is completely calm, but we can see the volcano bubbling underneath. It's strangely fascinating to see how Kidman internalises the pain and it clearly reflects on the screen. Her façade seems perfectly in place, but she starts falling apart in visits to a therapist. Even when she sits there with her husband in a wide shot, the focus is only on her face. The therapist pokes holes in her story of a perfect life in scenes that are brilliantly paced. These scenes show Kidman in one of the most delicately textured portrayals of domestic abuse I have ever seen. This performance is right up there with the likes of The Hours, Moulin Rouge!, and Rabbit Hole. I felt her performance is something many Pakistani women might identify with, given that they too are under societal pressure to present a picture of domestic bliss to the world even if home is akin to hell.

[Kidman's] performance is something many Pakistani women might identify with, given that they too are under societal pressure to present a picture of domestic bliss...

The other women in the cast are great too—Woodley is also sympathetic as Jane—the new struggling mother in the town who is also hiding some secrets. Witherspoon adds the right amount of zest to her character by and Dern, particularly, stands right up there with Kidman even with limited screen time. Every time she appears on the screen, you know that she is going to make the screen crackle.

The children also do a commendable job. Plaudits must especially go to Darby Camp (Chloe) and Iain Armitage (Ziggy). Camp here is simply brilliant. Her conversation with Witherspoon in the second episode sums up the theme of this drama. In the second episode, Witherspoon's Madeline gazes thoughtfully toward the ocean when her Chloe asks, "Why does Mommy always stare at the sea?"

Madeline responds, "The ocean is powerful. It's full of life, mystery. Who knows what lies out there beneath the surface?"

"Monsters?" questions Chloe.

Madeline waveringly responds, "Monsters? Maybe. Dreams? Sunken treasure? It's the great unknown."

This precisely summarises Big Little Lies. It scares you, gnaws at your emotions, and keeps you in a heightened state of tension. After watching it, I was emotionally drained. I'd recommend it highly.

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