When the powers-that-be at CBC came up with a name for its streaming service, they called it CBC Gem. Not an ultra-inspiring name, you’d think. But as it turns out, the service has some real gems in its library.
The Beautiful Lie (CBC Gem) is a stunningly good drama series from Australia, and heartily recommended. The six-part series is about doomed love. How do we know it’s doomed? Because it is a modern adaptation of the central story in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, set in modern, upper-middle-class Melbourne.
Me, I was taken aback by it; especially the visceral emotional weight of it. And then there’s the excellent cast, with the (doomed) lead played by Sarah Snook, who is familiar as Siobhan (Shiv) Roy, the dangerously mercurial daughter of media mogul Logan Roy on the HBO series Succession. She’s wonderful here as the Anna-figure who falls hopelessly, ecstatically and tragically in love with an unsuitable younger man. It’s addictive, this thing, and you need neither a weakness for stories of doomed love, nor knowledge of Tolstoy’s novel to savour it.
In the novel, the married minor aristocrat Anna departs her husband’s house to help save the marriage of her brother Stiva. He’s been unfaithful to his wife Dolly with one of the servants. In The Beautiful Lie, Anna (Snook) is a retired tennis star, a minor celebrity married to another former tennis star Xander (Rodger Corser). On hearing that her brother Kingsley has slept with the au pair, and his wife Dolly is about to throw him out, Anna flies in to try to bring calm to the situation. Kingsley is a bit pathetic and a bit remorseful. Dolly is angry but willing to forgive. These are all decent people compromising and trying to maintain a stable life.
On her way to her brother’s home, Anna sits next to a stranger on the plane. The stranger tells Anna about her son Skeet (Benedict Samuel), a young musician. When Anna meets Skeet at the airport, he stares at her and she stares back at him. Does he stare because he recognizes the former tennis champ? Not really. And why does Anna stare back? Is it because she feels she knows him from his mother’s stories?
The matter is settled in minutes because they witness a death as they leave the airport. The fragility and brevity of life is revealed to them. They are, in an instant, spectacularly in love, lust and capable of shattering everything around them to indulge this furiously passionate attraction.
And shatter they do. Skeet has just become engaged to Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty (Sophie Lowe), and as Anna is there to comfort Dolly, she witnesses the engagement party. Kitty, who is young, a little naïve but terribly in love with Skeet, intuits that he’s fallen for Anna. Her rage and despair are terrifying, and signal some of what will unfold for Anna and Skeet as they begin an erotically charged affair that hurts everyone around them. How doomed is it all? You don’t need to have read Tolstoy’s story because, as Anna says in the opening minutes, in a few years, she will be dead.
What’s deeply impressive about The Beautiful Lie (it’s in six parts and you can binge-watch it easily) is that what might be a fairly predictable, soap-like narrative is given texture and emotional heft, not by pumping up the melodrama, but by draining melodrama from it. There’s an exquisite, quiet subtlety to the performances and even to the filming, much of it done with hand-held cameras that linger close to the characters and thereby make them human, ordinary and far from ominously tragic figures. You feel like a fly-on-the-wall in these comfortable Melbourne homes, observing privileged people who simply have common human weaknesses and strengths.
Now, those who know the Tolstoy novel well might quibble with some elements of this adaptation. While at times the series does a remarkable job in mirroring the original story, in the novel Anna falls for Vronsky, a dashing, handsome and wealthy man. In The Beautiful Lie, the Vronsky figure is Skeet, who is more the brooding, lackadaisical type. What this Anna sees in this Vronsky-Skeet is his powerful, youthful intensity.
For all that quibbling, the series is a rare find, an adult drama that is disarmingly honest about selfishness and the emotional self-immolation that engulfs some people at a certain age. The central love story is gripping enough, but you care, too, about the figures around Anna and Skeet, those family members trying to hold on to what they’ve got.
The Beautiful Lie landed here without much fanfare. There are few Australian series, far as I know, that match the quality of prestige cable dramas we see regularly. It did run on Hulu in the United States for a while and all I could find in advance was a short review in The New York Times. That one called it “gorgeously addictive”, which is true, and also said, “Think The Affair, but actually good.” True too.
Trust me on this one – the series is a true gem, a delicately lyrical love story reverberating with all the enchantment and agony of an amorous infatuation.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.