Near the top of lists of killer literary first lines is always the opening salvo from Leo Tolstoy's 1877 masterpiece, Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Writers tend to borrow it – I plead guilty - because, well, the world is never short of unhappy families in all their wretched variety.
But is it really as true as it sounds? After bingeing The Beautiful Lie, the 2015 series based on Anna Karenina streaming on Netflix, it seems when the protagonist is a woman pursuing her own desires the unhappy endings remain alike.
In this version, to borrow another useful first line, the past is a foreign country – the privileged precincts of modern Melbourne. They do things differently there. From memory, in the original, Anna and Vronsky never did lines of coke before having sex at a charity auction.
Anna and her husband, Xander, former tennis professionals, are as close as it gets in Australia, apparently, to old-school Russian aristocracy. Their trophies seem to fill a whole room of their mansion. Xander is a bit dull. "You have three versions of the same white shirt," sighs Anna.
Then she's introduced to the son of a woman she meets on a plane. Skeet is younger, edgier, a bad bet. But their eyes lock over the corpse of a taxi driver run over by a bus in the airport car park. Overlooking this shrieking plot portent, they simmer. Skeet lurks outside her house. Anna decides what the hell, seize the day. Or seize the Byronic young music producer.
Soon she's an outcast, a bad mother estranged from her 6-year-old son, media deals cancelled, tabloid fodder. Even I'm struggling not to judge her. Let the unravelling begin.
It reminds me of all those vintage movies where unconventional women, having sinned, cannot be reabsorbed into society, and end up shunned or walking off a bridge. There's a scene in The Beautiful Lie where Anna turns up at a party, hoping to see her son. She hasn't been told the dress code is white and enters late in red. Homage, perhaps, to 1938 classic movie Jezebel, in which Bette Davis' delinquent southern belle turns up to a debutante ball in a brazen scarlet gown. Her fiance disowns her. She can only redeem herself by heading off to a leper colony to nurse her ex, now a victim of a yellow fever epidemic.
It's not like the other Beautiful Lie families aren't wildly dysfunctional. Anna's sister-in-law, Dolly, lets the au pair bring up her children. Dolly's inventive punishments of her husband, Kingsley, after he sleeps with said au pair, provide welcome light relief. Skeet is careless, destructive, overindulged by his mother. It's always the mother. He still goes out for a beer with the boys while Anna implodes alone.
This adaptation does underline the sexist, judgmental, tabloid forces bearing down on Anna like a speeding train. Anna to Kingsley: "You get away with everything, just because you're a man. All you ever do is hold a baby and everyone says, 'Oh, wow! What a great dad.' People expect so little of you." Men are forgiven their trespasses. It was ever thus. Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown is a sensation because it's still not that usual for a female lead who looks normal, who vapes and is damaged and stuffs up, to be ultimately admirable.
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So no real surprises except that this adaptation can't rejig a slightly less disheartening finale. That may be the point. Anna has clung to the beautiful lie that love can conquer all, dangerously underestimating her opponent in this match: age-old double standards. There's a special toxicity, amplified by social media – most media, really - reserved for women who behave badly or who are just getting on with their lives as pop stars, princesses, or prime ministers in the public eye. Anna's story retains the heft of classic tragedy because, after years of seeming progress for women, it still rings so hauntingly true.
Next week: Steve Braunias