A whodunit murder mystery confronts us in the first flashes of HBO’s limited series, Big Little Lies. It is a mystery we are teased with in snap shots from an Elvis and Audrey Hepburn-themed elementary school fundraiser. Who is dead, and why, only reveals itself in the final episode which aired on Sunday night.
While murder is the initial hook, with juicy police interviews of gossipy parents spliced together after the incident, the show is really about the complicated lives of three compelling women, mothers and friends living out privileged existences to varying degrees, intersecting at school runs, kids parties, PTA meetings and coffee houses by the ocean. Sleepy, beach-side Monterey provides the backdrop for the David E. Kelley adapted and Jean-Marc Vallée-directed show, based on Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel.
A pitch-perfect Reese Witherspoon plays Madeline, a tightly-wound mother of two daughters, and alpha-dog of the mom-pack. But Madeline’s primness, from impeccably put-together outfits and rich, blonde highlights to an unnerving Colgate-white smile, hide her imperfections, including an affair with Joseph with whom she is putting on a controversial play. She loves her husband Ed (a warm and sensitive Adam Scott), that much is evident, but even he feels like he plays second fiddle at times to Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) with whom she shares eldest daughter Abigail who may or may not be selling her virginity to the highest bidder to raise money for charity. Nathan is married to the beguiling, free-spirited Bonnie (a sultry Zoe Kravitz), now an attentive father to their little daughter, present in a way he wasn’t for Abigail. Madeline is resentful of that fact, and of easy, breezy Bonnie.
Nicole Kidman is a revelation as Celeste, her rusty-red locks, perfectly porcelain skin and regal gait, making her stand out in a town full of manufactured beauty. Celeste’s sexually-charged union to younger businessman Perry (a very imposing Alexander Skarsgård) is the talk of the town. They make an intoxicating pair, parenting twin boys in a sharp-edged, modern, upscale home. But while the electricity between the two charges them sexually, it is also a source of violence, with Perry’s insecurities and need for dominance and control causing him to choke and strike Celeste at even the smallest perceived slight. Therapy cannot bring this relationship back from the brink, particularly after a severe beating that leaves Celeste with no choice but to head for the exit, prompted by her therapist to lease an apartment for herself and her sons, which she does.
A sublime Shailene Woodley slips into the tortured skin of Jane, new to the town, and running from a dark past. Jane’s means are more modest than the other women, but Madeline takes her under her wing, with a genuine friendship forming slowly even though the two couldn’t be more different. Jane is mother to Ziggy, a sensitive young boy who was the product of a brutal rape. Jane doesn’t know where Ziggy’s father is, but knows she would recognize his voice if she ever crossed paths with him again. Adjusting to their new environment is difficult, especially when Ziggy is accused on the first day of school, of hurting Amabella, daughter of high-flying executive Renata (Laura Dern), something of an arch rival to Madeline. When Amabella is bitten, and Ziggy is implicated again, Renata becomes enraged, confronting Jane, who gives her a black-eye for her trouble.
By the night of the fundraiser, tensions are high. Ziggy has confessed to Jane that it is one of Celeste’s twin boys that has been bullying Amabella, news Jane delivers to a distracted and overwhelmed Celeste who has greater troubles plaguing her. She will later confess to Renata, putting an end to that mystery.
As they are about to leave for the fundraiser, a leather-clad Perry in all his Elvis glory hands Celeste (doing her best Audrey Hepburn) her phone. There is a message from a realtor, he says. Celeste’s face crumbles. She has been found out by the one person she needs to escape. The two argue in the car, Perry desperate to hold on to their sordid marriage, Celeste, frightened but resolute in her decision to leave.
As Ed takes to the stage, following a showstopping performance by Bonnie, Madeline is falling apart, already having downed one too many cocktails. She is riddled with guilt, confessing to Jane that she has cheated on Ed before rushing out of the fundraiser. Jane races after her. Meanwhile, a panicked Celeste has made her way into the swanky event, finding Renata and unloading the news about her son. Perry chases after Celeste who catches up with Jane and Madeline outside. When Perry starts to talk, Jane has a dark moment of realization. Perry is Ziggy’s dad. He was her attacker. He is the man Jane has been chasing along the beach with a gun in something of a dream sequence that pops up throughout the show. The women suddenly understand Jane’s horror. Perry also realizes that he has been found out. He starts beating Celeste, fighting off the other women as they try to defend her. Bonnie runs up on the charged scene, pushing Perry down the stairs to his death.
The series concludes with the women telling their sides of the story to the police. Perry fell. At least that is the tale they all tell. We later see the women and their children splashing around on the beach as if it is just another day. They are now bonded by tragedy, holding one more secret in their little enclave.
Big Little Lies is a triumph for HBO, with each player rising to the occasion, stretching their talents far and wide. The stories of these women, striving for perfection, juggling motherhood, career and friendships, and the secrets they all keep – their quiet struggles and frailties, feel very real. Nicole Kidman undoubtedly steals the series, with a heart-wrenching performance as a battered spouse trying to fight her way out of the fog. Awards nominations are sure to follow. You’ll be hard pressed to find so many beautifully developed female characters represented in one piece of art, but Big Little Lies delivered just that, and did it to startling effect.