October 31, 2011

The Slap: A mixture of bestial aggression and sentimentality

Ivor Indyk, a highly regarded Australian publisher, has kindly allowed me to republish his review of the television series adaptation of Christos Tsiolka’s novel ‘The Slap’. The review was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on 23 October 2011. I hope you enjoy it.

How book lovers feel watching The Slap
Ivor Indyk

I saw The Eye of the Storm recently and it confirmed my prejudice that a film could not present the psychological complexity of a novel. Immediately afterwards the television version of The Slap made me change my mind.

From the beginning, it seemed more compelling than the novel on which it was based. The first episode, leading up to the iconic moment when a middle-aged man hits a four-year-child, had a pace and intensity that Christos Tsiolkas's novel didn't have.

More to the point, Tsiolkas's determinedly ethnic perspective - just about everybody in the novel, apart from the Anglo ''victims'', carries an ethnic identification - was even more pronounced in the television version, which could mark it simply by dwelling on a character's face or their voice.

It's unfair to say one version is better because the novel opened up the space in which the series makes its claims.

Tsiolkas goes where other writers can't or won't but that's partly because he doesn't mind too much how he gets there.

Tsiolkas's style - if it is one - is best described as crash through or crash. Everything is upfront, there's little use of resonance or implication, no special regard for language or the turns of plot. Feelings, except for the most primitive expressions of will or desire, are described not enacted.

This is where the TV version comes into its own, since it is all enactment. The only descriptive element in it, the occasional voiceover of the narrator, is jarring. What the actors achieve through the expression of emotion, and the directors through the framing of detail, is remarkable when set against the wordiness of much local drama and the novel itself.

For my money, the most powerful episodes are those featuring Anouk, the producer in her early 40s who is contemplating an abortion, and Connie, the schoolgirl on the verge of sexual experience. Scripted by Emily Ballou and Alice Bell, and played with evocative power by Essie Davis and Sophie Lowe, these two episodes stand out for their exploration of conflict through the modulation of feeling.

It is interesting that a novel questioned for the treatment of its female characters should have produced, through this collaboration with television, such fine portrayals of sexual awareness from a female point of view.

One can imagine the scriptwriters and directors selecting, refining and recombining the raw (often very raw) materials provided by the novel. The one episode where I thought the collaboration went out of control was that devoted to Harry, the perpetrator of the slap, written by Brendan Cowell.

Tsiolkas isn't subtle when it comes to irony: his way of judging characters is to exaggerate their actions until they turn into grotesques. Cowell takes Tsiolkas at his word and raises him - the result is a mixture of bestial aggression and sentimentality that threatens to throw the whole series out of kilter. If you make Harry a monster, you lose the moral complexity that made The Slap a bestseller in the first place.

I think the crucial episode will be the second last, which focuses on Aisha. In the book she is the strongest character but Tsiolkas suddenly has her beguiled by sexual enchantment and then punished by sexual abasement. Her husband Hector goes down in flames - or rather tears - too. You read in anger, as Tsiolkas crashes and crashes again. It is good to see The Slap's TV team heightening the tension between Hector and Aisha in preparation for the moral confrontation that is to come.

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