There’s a scene in the opening episode of The Slap that is more film than television.
We’re in the middle of a suburban bbq in middle-class Melbourne. Hector (Jonathan LaPaglia) is turning 40 and family and friends have gathered for a lazy lunch. There are wives, cousins, sisters, parents, in-laws, partners and children sprinkled around the backyard in small moments of quiet conversation.
Thanks to the camerawork the viewer becomes an outsider looking in, with some characters ever so slightly out of focus. As if in slow motion, you can hear fragments of sentences. Conversations that are incidental to the subtext of character interaction. Sexual tension here. Frustration there. Menial tasks, a laugh, a sigh.
It’s the quiet before the storm, because in the midst of it all will come the inciting incident. To the absolute horror of the guests, a child is slapped by an unrelated adult. It is a moment that will ricochet across the series.
The Slap works quietly to establish itself as a slice of Australian contemporary life.
Hector has a pretty perfect life, married to Aisha (Sophie Okonedo) and father of Adam (Adrian Van Der Heyden) and Melissa (Liberty Townsend). He’s got a comfortable existence, digs jazz, is still sexy and loves his family. But he’s also very flawed, unable to give up smoking and on the precipice of succumbing to an affair with the 17 year old receptionist Connie (Sophie Lowe) who works at his wife’s veterinarian practice.
The first of 8 episodes will enter the labyrinth of The Slap through Hector’s eyes and subsequent episodes will focus on different key players. Shades of Kurosawa’s Rashomon perhaps….?
As the birthday boy he is tugged from all sides, by his wife British-born wife Aisha, his over-bearing Greek parents (Toula Yianni, Lex Marinos) and his obstinate, fiery cousin Harry (Alex Dimitriades). Then there are the kids, his own and the children of his guests, who can’t seem to avoid fights over the smallest incidents. He’d rather flirt with Connie, sneak in a bit of weed or masturbate in the bathroom. As if to cling to his youth, sometimes Hector likes to play with fire.
Other party guests include family friends Rosie (Melissa George), who mothers her child to the point of pampering, and Anouk (Essie Davis) a soapie writer bordering on rock-chick, who is dating a celebrity.
The marketing campaign for this drama asks us “Whose side will you take?” In the opening episode I found it hard to choose sides. How do you defend violence against a child, even if you’re at breaking point? So I look forward to being morally challenged by subsequent episodes as we delve deeper into its web.
Unlike so many Australian dramas The Slap is also instantly multicultural. On top of the Australian, Greek, British and African heritage, there’s also a Middle-Eastern Muslim family attending the celebrations. As a snapshot of Australian suburbia it is representation on the screen that is sorely lacking on commercial television.
As with dramas like Tangle or films like Lantana, The Slap also tells us family life is complicated, fragile, a work in progress…
LaPaglia is excellent as the imperfect Hector, in an ensemble cast that is universally strong. It’s hard to know who will deliver more in coming episodes: Davis, Dimitriadis, George or Okonedo. On that front, it’s surely an embarrasment of riches.
I also haven’t read the novel by Christos Tsolkias, so I can’t comment on how faithful the script by Kris Mrksa (Episode 1) is under Producers Tony Ayres, Helen Bowden and Michael McMahon and Director Jessica Hobbs. But I was completely hooked by its ability to present three-dimensional characters on the screen and its strength in telling an urban story. So confident are the sum of the parts that frankly it feels like this will only get better.
The Slap is one of the bravest dramas of the year.
The Slap airs 8:30pm Thursdays on ABC1.