Big Little Lies – television at its very best

If you haven’t watched Big Little Lies already you probably should. No, seriously. Stop reading this now and watch it. Now. Do it right now.

Big Little Lies‘ perfection begins with Jean-Marc Vallée. The director, celebrated for Dallas Byers Club and Wild, creates moving pictures that are rich in emotional depth and thematically brave. This television mini-series, adapted from Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, boasts a phenomenal a-list ensemble and welcomes fresh young talent too. It’s a collaborative masterpiece that reads more as a feature-length film than usual series fare, a trait that works in its favour.

Essentially a series of conversations and betrayals amongst a group of women in the picturesque coastal town of Monterey, California, Big Little Lies seats us in a serene paradise that juxtaposes the actions of its people. The lives of five woman unfold over seven episodes as their first-grader children embark on their first year of school. Bullying, domestic abuse, marriage and friendship are all presented to us in brave and bold new ways with an explorative eye and level of intricacy perhaps unseen before.

Whether it’s in the knowing looks shared between two friends, or the layered and fragmented relationships seen between four married couples, writer David E. Kelley and his director Vallée explore the exasperation and tribulations these mothers feel and the secret brutality of their apparently perfect world as it crumbles around them. Much of the narrative focuses on Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry ( Alexander Skarsgård). At first this pair seem blissfully – and passionately – happy in their million-dollar home by the sea with two cute-as-a-button boys. This facade is quickly shattered by the realisation that they share a dark secret; Perry is a violent and psychotic husband who frequently beats Celeste, repenting with flowers and expensive jewellery. The abuse escalates as the series goes on and these scenes, directed with an uncomfortably intimate lens, depict domestic abuse in an unnerving and realistic plot-thread that works to remind us that this is a deadly serious (and often silent) issue in society.

The total isolation of Kidman’s Celeste is portrayed in aching moments of sadness in a doctor’s office and her inability to acknowledge the depth of her martial situation effectively points to the stigma surrounding physical abuse behind closed doors. Celeste isn’t weak, in fact she’s an accomplished lawyer, loving mother, and friend-to-all who is slowly losing sight of her self as her controlling husband tightens his psychological grip. Kidman and Skarsgård are both revelations here, particularly the latter, as he showcases what broad talent he really does have under his fluffy cinematic roles, while fearlessly embodying Perry and his brewing malevolence. The scenes shared between the two aren’t an easy watch but this serves a bruising, thought-provoking purpose.

Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies.

While the series is an ensemble piece, Reese Witherspoon often takes lead. The Oscar-winning actress is a sensation as Madeleine; intelligent, cutting, sharp, self-aware and, actually, a champion of what it means to be a mother and a woman. She is flawed and imperfect, while from the outside perspective of fellow parents she appears to define what it is to be an upper class woman in contemporary America, she’s perhaps the most complex character in the story we see. Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern also star, each battling their own demons in the confines of Monterey. The location becomes a character too which, despite its aesthetic beauty, is rammed with ugly secrets.

The seven episodes are accompanied by an emotive soundtrack which includes Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young and Leon Bridges that serves the narrative so well, it’s a treat on the ears while the show itself is often tremendously tough on the eyes. Each episode escalates in its many engimas while questions are slowly answered and secrets unveiled, before the final You Get What You Need ties up loose ends. This cathartic episode represents the unbreakfable bond between women and their utterly inimitable strength too.

Big Littles Lies is an incredible landmark in contemporary television. I would say it’s a rare example of what the small screen can achieve, but I hope it will be one of many sharp, witty and significant pieces of art to come that shouldn’t – and surely won’t – be forgotten. This is flawless drama at its honest best.

Wild, review

Jean-Marc Vallee’s direction of Cheryl Strayed’s compelling, saddening and ultimately inspiring story is, like what Strayed went through, a journey. Not just a journey because we are infact watching the author’s trail across America. But a journey because we, as an audience, gain something while watching. Not only do we watch as Strayed (portrayed by Witherspoon in a career-defining role) addresses her own issues and accepts that past events have not hindered her, but shaped her, by watching the development of Cheryl on her adventure we personally come to recognise some of our own pivotal moments in life.

Cheryl’s story is somewhat tumultuous, which ultimately led to her deciding to embark on the Pacific Crest Trail. Having lost her loving and energetic Mother at the age of 22 Strayed’s marriage broke down and she started to use heroin as a way of coping. After coming to the realization that she was destroying herself she went on a 94 day trek from Mexico to Oregon to, as her Mother used to say, “Put herself in the way of beauty.”. The rewarding aspect about a true story is we are easily able to relate our own life to the person on screen. Witherspoon doesn’t over-act or dramatize Strayed, she characterizes her as a normal human being, devoid of unrealistic narrative traits which frequent movies – its a rare, but enjoyable attribute to character-driven features. Strayed’s intellect is displayed throughout, but never becomes overbearing and the choice to edit certain quotes from the author’s travels on screen fits well within the tone of the film – simple yet decidedly stylish when appropriate. Visual motifs brought in along the way serve as an excellent reminder of the importance of Strayed’s walk and the change in locale, represented perfectly through Yves Belanger’s uncomplicated yet stunning cinematography, is enough to inspire ones own wanderlust.

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in Wild

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in Wild

Laura Dern (who has somewhat made a come-back recently) and Witherspoon hold the film together and establish themselves as real contenders for the Academy Awards this year. The latter is almost unrecognizable as Strayed, for she is ferocious and bad-mouthed, with an underlying sweetness that the actress is better known for. Dern portrays Bobbi, Cheryl’s mother with such a warmth that you can’t help but adore her; her lustiness for life is infectious and you will find yourself imaging your own adventures come the end of the piece. Interestingly, and rather refreshingly, Cheryl is not particularly likeable at several intervals within the film and that says a lot for her character. What the viewer comes away with is an understanding of ones own power to recognise personal strength, and to act upon it when necessary. As Bobbi would remind Cheryl while growing up, “If I can teach you anything, it would be how to find your best self.”.

Vallee stands as a director taken by provocative real-life stories of people who in one way or another, find redemption. Strayed is brutally honest in regards to her back story and Vallee doesn’t shy away from this – if you are expecting a happy-go-lucky travel movie, this isn’t for you. If you appreciate honesty, grit and want to experience your own expedition, Wild will serve as an appropriate watch. Thank you Cheryl for sharing your story of self-acceptance, and, thank you Vallee for portraying that story quite remarkably.

Dallas Buyers Club, review

Released late 2013 and winner of three Academy Awards Jean-Marc Vallee’s critically acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club is a biopic of sorts, charting the real-life story of Ron Woodroof (portrayed wonderfully by Matthew McConaughey) wh0, when diagnosed with AIDS, takes treatment for not only him but other sufferers into his own hands. The film, at 116 minutes, is tough at times – prepare for real emotion and some mixed feelings when it comes to Woodroof. This is such an important story to tell and despite potential difficulties is essential viewing. Lifting the lid on AIDS Vallee takes the stance of a non-judgmental director, its up to you how you feel about Woodroof and his controversial lifestyle, but one thing is for certain – you care, and you feel sympathy for what people with this illness had to go through before helpful treatments became accessible (a light is also shined on the prejudice they unjustly received).

Set in 1985 when these real-life events took place we are positioned with Ron, a man who leads a lifestyle of hard drug use, gambling and precarious sexual endeavors. Having suffered from several blackouts and then an accident at work Woodroof is told he has AIDS and is given thirty days to get his affairs in order before his illness will kill him. Refusing to accept this horrible diagnoses he takes part in a drug test for AZT (which at that time was one of the only drugs approved to treat AIDS in America). Shortly after Woodroof meets various other sufferers including the charismatic and rather beautiful Rayon, a transgender male. Rayon, played by Jared Leto (unbelievably good in this role) is a juxtaposition to Woodroof, and is due credit to the change in Ron’s attitude to life, and a change in his morals which is highlighted throughout the course of the film. The majority of Buyers Club focuses on Ron’s illegal drug trade (he smuggles in ddc and peptide T, both of which improved his health) which helped to prolong the lives of many AIDS patients as well as his own (Ron lived for seven years after his diagnosis was originally given to him). Interestingly, it is the medical system in America that seems to be under attack rather than Woodroof’s initial lifestyle choices.

The most intriguing element to this riveting true story is the relationship between Ron and Rayon. Leto plays the latter with a sterling heart and love for life; unafraid to be different. Leto’s performance lends to some heartrending moments, and one of the best performances (if not THE best of 2013) which deservedly led to him winning Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars. McConaughey’s onscreen chemistry with Leto is wonderful at times, these two are a pair that couldn’t be further apart but during the course of the film they help each other in an array of ways which leads to a strong friendship. Rayon in particular changes Woodroof’s opinions on homosexuality for the better which is best exemplified in a scene in a supermarket; A man Ron knows verbally insults Rayon which leads to a fight because of Woodroofs refusal to accept what he has just heard. It is at this moment that you know there is a heart somewhere in Ron, but perhaps he has just been too afraid to show it.

promotional still for dallas buyers club

promotional still for dallas buyers club

McConaughey is a treasure as the protagonist of the film in a physically and emotionally demanding role (he lost three stone in weight to portray Ron at his most frail), never overplaying as someone who has a tremendous change of perspective (going from a man who is not particularly likeable to someone who cares for others more then he does himself). He also plays Ron with a charismatic charm about him – even in his darkest moments he still cracks a smart comment or some kind of joke. McConaughey and Vallee are never judging Woodroof, who certainly behaved in ways which could be looked down upon, its up to those watching what viewpoint they end on. Supporting the two main actors is Jennifer Garner, an actress who is often overshadowed or perhaps forgotten for the roles she plays but steals the scenes she is in because of her fragility and kindness. Those two things are adopted as she embodies Dr. Eve Saks, a woman who refused to quietly ignore the wrongdoings of the American medical system at that time.

The whole film is full of tender moments which are often challenged by ones of the harsh reality of what these people were dealing with. Humanity and friendship are of great significance in Dallas Buyers Club and the relationships played out are touching to watch and heartbreaking to see end. A particular scene in a restaurant between McConaughey and Garner shines with personality and aura and it feels as though you could be placed there with them. Another wonderful trait to the piece is its non-intrusive stance; for a film focused on people dealing with a terminal illness scenes relating to this never feel overwrought or uncomfortably gruesome but Vallee is still able to make you aware of the limited time Rayon, Ron and their friends were left with.

Intelligent, wickedly humorous at times and just damn brilliant Dallas Buyers Club is a stellar example of cinema at its best and most powerful.