Sunday Screening: The Slap – parenting, friendship, loyalty, secrets

Four adults (two men, two women) stand on a fenced lawn, one of the women is holding a young child protectively.  Everybody looks seriously unhappy.


Here There Be Spoilers

I waited to write about The Slap until the series ended (which happened last week). This was Auntie’s keystone piece of local drama for the year, based on an awarding-winning novel by Christos Tsiolkas (which is now on my must-read list). What I found particularly satisfying about the series was how the character-based narrative kept overturning my initial conceptions, each POV episode revealing new challenges, realisations, secrets and dreams as events unreel.

From the ABC series website:

This 8 –part drama series traces the shattering repercussions of a single event upon a group of family and friends.

The series starts at an Australian backyard BBQ. Amongst alcohol, friendship and a children’s cricket game a man slaps a child who is not his son. The party comes to a sudden halt. The child’s parents are so affronted they vow to take the man to court. As the series unfolds the police become involved and friends and family are forced to take sides. One cousin is forced to testify against another. Couples are caught in the crossfire. Beliefs are tested and relationships strained.

The story is told through the points of view of eight characters as the court case proceeds, as affairs begin and end, as a pregnancy is decided and marriages morph and change. Each character’s life is profoundly affected by “the slap”, and each of the main characters is metaphorically slapped as they are forced to face up to fundamental truths about themselves.

The Slap explores what happens when the veil of civility that binds us as a society, is rent aside by one disturbing action. It brings to vivid life questions of parenting, the rights of children, race, class, sexuality, and the different perspectives of men and women.

The casting has obviously been extremely carefully considered, not just in terms of who can do justice to the characters but also ensuring a few stars who are well known overseas to help with international marketing. They got it so right – the performances are absorbing. The eight characters who each form the central character of an episode are as follows (there’s a character tree on the website, and more detailed character biographies) – I’m avoiding any spoilers that are not already on the show’s website here in the post, but they will undoubtedly come up in comments:

  • Episode 1Hector (Jonathan LaPaglia) – Hector and Aisha are the couple at whose BBQ the Slap occurs. That they are a mixed-race couple (Greek-Mauritian) is wound inextricably throughout the series narrative, especially in her relations with some members of his family, although between themselves it seems hardly acknowledged (perhaps a problem in itself?).
  • Episode 2Anouk (Essie Davis) – Anouk is one of Aisha’s BFFs. She is the only singleton in the social group, and leads a superficially carefree and glamorous showbiz life. She’s juggling a new relationship, her mother needs daily care, and Anouk initially doesn’t take the Slap seriously at all. She’s also the only one who sees signs of Hector’s secret.
  • Episode 3Harry (Alex Dimitriades) – Hector’s cousin, and the Slapper. Harry is used to getting his own way, in just about everything; valuing material success and social status very highly: poster boy for entitlement. He reacts extremely badly to the police questioning him. He is also a man of many secrets.
  • Episode 4Connie (Sophie Lowe)- a senior high school student who works at Aisha’s veterinary clinic. She has a crush on Hector which she keeps absolutely secret, even from her best friend Richie. She is a regular babysitter for Hugo (the slapped boy).
  • Episode 5Rosie (Melissa George) – Aisha’s other BFF, the mother of the slapped boy, Hugo. With husband Gary, she practises a frugal alternative and iconoclastic lifestyle, which Hector’s relatives tend to look down on. She is a fiercely protective parent, and her choice to continue breastfeeding him at age 4 raises many eyebrows.
  • Episode 6Manolis (Lex Marinos) – Hector’s father and Harry’s uncle. He has come to despise his wife, and views his children and nephew with bewildered disappointment. He tries to mend the fragmenting social circle, but his self-doubt and bitterness sabotage his efforts.
  • Episode 7Aisha (Sophie Okonedo) – caught in the middle of loyalty to her friends and her husband’s family regarding The Slap, Aisha realises that she’s dissatisfied with her marriage and weary of being unappreciated by Hector’s relatives. As she emotionally withdraws from the competing demands, her central role in holding the entire circle together becomes more and more obvious.
  • Episode 8Richie (Blake Davis) – the son of Aisha’s veterinary nurse, Connie’s best friend and eventual confidant of her secret. A regular babysitter for Hugo, Richie was in charge of the cricket game at Hector’s party BBQ that led to the Slap. Confused about his own sexual identity and boundaries, he becomes obsessed by her secret to the point where nothing else matters.

The supporting characters – various partners, colleagues, old friends and new lovers – weave in and out of these episodes, their interactions building revelations and adding challenges. It’s all exceptionally well done. I was particularly impressed by one beautiful moment of writing which conveyed so much between two children eating in the kitchen with their father:

Younger Child: When’s mum coming back home?
Older Child: I told you not to ask that!

Episodes are still viewable on the ABC website for Aussies.
 The Slap was released on DVD by Hopscotch Entertainment on December 1. I was supposed to get a screener to review, but it never arrived (sadface). This means that I still haven’t seen the Connie episode, which is a shame, because I really enjoy Sophie Lowe’s acting.

Categories: arts & entertainment, parenting, relationships, violence

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33 replies

  1. I found the ‘Whose side are you on’ tag to be misleading and annoying. I’m not on anyone’s side in that drama. One of the things I really enjoyed was how none of the characters were heroes. Fantastic acting and great writing all round.

  2. I’m a bit torn on the tagline, because although it’s simplistic there is also that deliberate aspect to the narrative whereby our sympathies are engaged with one character’s POV and then we learn something repellent about them to make us question our own earlier prejudices. It’s very cleverly done.

  3. p.s. are Bilal and Shamira the only couple about whom we don’t learn something disturbing or whose marriage is not in trouble? Of course they are relatively minor characters, but they’re comparatively straightforward and seem to be genuinely forging a path together.

  4. *I have not read the book*
    Although I liked Anouk as a character, I felt that her chapter/episode could have been left out. Having her featured right after Hector just for exposition re: Rosie, Aisha and Anouk’s friendship took away a little bit of the momentum, IMO.
    I loved* reading a comment on a newspaper website declaring that leaving Bilal and Shamira in the telly version of the book “wasn’t realistic”, as Indigenous Muslims don’t exist in the real world. Or something. *cough* Anthony Mundine *cough* They were probably my favourite couple in the series.
    *Sarcasm typeface would go here.

  5. I wonder though, without that episode, whether those of us who haven’t read the book would have picked up so explicitly on their longstanding friendship that pre-dated their existing relationships? That’s a fairly crucial aspect to the loyalty expectations that drive the major conflicts, especially those between Hector and Aisha, later in the story.

  6. I enjoyed it. I have read the book and felt it was very true to the book, although some nuance was lost with the change of Aisha from Indian (from an ancient proud culture and resentful of the Greek in-laws cultural one-upping) to Mauritian.
    They did a great job of making Rosie more understandable, if not more likeable.
    I really felt for Aisha, expected to understand and support everyone else and put everyone else’s needs and desires before her own, but not getting much of the same in return from anyone except Anouk. The scene in the last episode where Rosie lashes out at her was so infuriating.

    • Merryn, I can see how Aisha would work a bit differently reading as Indian rather than as Mauritian. I wonder what they could have done if the scriptwriters had been brave enough to go with Sophie Okenodo’s actual cultural identification as Jewish via her Ashkenazi mother.

  7. Dude writes a “girl gets rejected and cries rape” story, and gets fawned on for his freshness and originality? Try finding a plot device that wasn’t used in Genesis.
    I have more substantiative stuff to contribute when I have a bit more time, but I needed to get that out of the way first.

  8. I think that’s an interesting hypothetical tigtog. Personally, I think that since one of the three women in the friendship trio is already Ashkenazi (Anouk), then that would really dramatically transform the dynamics of cultural identification and difference within that group. I mean, as much as there is nuance lost by changing Aisha’s background into Mauritian, I think that writing her as Jewish would go far beyond nuance and would result in her character making much less sense.

  9. p.s. are Bilal and Shamira the only couple about whom we don’t learn something disturbing or whose marriage is not in trouble? Of course they are relatively minor characters, but they’re comparatively straightforward and seem to be genuinely forging a path together.

    Nuh-uh. As much as I wanted to slap Rosie in the series, and as much as I wouldn’t give her the time of day if I knew her IRL, the conversation where Bilal informs Rosie that she’s not allowed to be friends with, or contact, Shamira was hugely out of line. We were supposed to feel Rosie’s hurt and humiliation, which we did, but I think an element that went unnoticed was Bilal making a decision who his wife could and could not see. That is not, and never will be, OK. So that revealed a controlling aspect that would cause problems down the track, but they faded out of the narrative before that could be told.
    Also: what Orlando said about the “women lying about rape” plotline. We’re seeing so many events in the news where it’s assumed by hundreds of comments that a woman is lying and the man can’t possibly be guilty. Now we know Connie is lying, because Tsiolkas wrote it that way, duh, but this fictional event just feeds the narrative that this is the way it usually is. Not helping.

    • Helen, I’d forgotten about Bilal telling Rosie to keep away from Shamira – now I remember that at the time it was the moment where I lost a lot of sympathy for the character, I just couldn’t remember why that had happened when I was writing the post.
      Connie’s lie is a difficult one to slot straight into the standard false allegation trope – it’s not like she goes to the police with her allegation, and indeed she actively resists Richie trying to push her that far, which is anti-trope; but she did tell the lie in the first place in order that Richie would stop asking her awkward questions, which fits right into the standard trope.
      Li, I hadn’t realised that Anouk was Ashkenazi – you’re absolutely right that making Aisha also Ashkenazi would totally change the dynamics (from what we saw in the TV show, it appears that there’s a bit of an outsiders-finding-each-other dynamic in that friendship triad – obviously if two of them had a shared cultural heritage that would make it very different). I just thought it would be very interesting to explore the racialist dynamics of her personally primarily identifying with her mother’s heritage (because her mother (and her relatives) was always there during her childhood) while most people automatically classify her as her father’s heritage because of her skin colour, and learning to deal with that dissonance (as both Halle Berry and Barack Obama also had to learn).

  10. …Having said all that, I agree completely with the OP that this was a very superior production.

  11. The book did my head in. I think the premise of the story is quite inspired but the characters were so unlikable. I do still want to see the series though.

  12. Connie’s lie isn’t the only plot feature that discomforted me in The Slap, I also think that Rosie breastfeeding Hugo is meant to bring up a lot of connotations that rely on fairly sexist readings of extended breastfeeding (see the Feministe thread of doom on the subject tigtog linked in the Otterday comments). But at the same time, as much as I hate hate hate the trope, the specific version Tsolkas uses isn’t particularly egregious, and given that everyone in the story does so many unpleasant things, I’m willing to forgive its inclusion.
    I don’t have the book on hand to double check, but I got the impression that Connie wasn’t really telling the lie to hurt Hector but to protect herself from having to actually account for the affair (and the fucked up power dynamics at play in the affair make me think that while it doesn’t feature rape, it is to an extent abusive) and out of conflicting feelings of jealousy and guilt over Richie finding Hector attractive. The standard rape lie trope doesn’t tend to be that nuanced, and it generally includes a primary motivation to hurt the accused. As much as Connie’s lie is about Hector, the plotlines it throws up, including the damage it does, and the dynamics that motivate it are much more about Connie and Richie than they are about Hector.
    So yes, I think the trope is sexist, but I also think it’s done well. Or, as well as a trope about a woman lying about rape can be done.

    • As much as Connie’s lie is about Hector, the plotlines it throws up, including the damage it does, and the dynamics that motivate it are much more about Connie and Richie than they are about Hector.

      Yes, exactly. That still fits into the standard trope in part (woman who has unsanctioned sexual relationship lies to others in order to maintain existing social bonds) but it’s definitely hardly at all about Hector.

  13. Remember Bluemilk had some good thoughts when the book first came out.
    Tsiolkas doesn’t deserve any points for not having Connie go to the police, let alone for making it not that much about Hector, she was still a selfish little lying slutty slut slut, who hurt everyone else with her lies, and the whole second half of the story was propelled by that plot point. We don’t need one more story propping up that cliche, giving a bunch more people the feeling that they’ve seen it happen so it must be true, and as a sexually marginalised person who must have been on the receiving end of a bunch of stereotypes throughout his life, the author should have known better.
    – and breathe.
    Loved the acting, loved the editing. Hated that the men would be shown swimming, the women lying in the bath. Thought it did very successfully exactly what I bet the author set out to do, that is, to write the ultimate conversation starter. If someone brings up the book or series it’s like you instantly have unlimited, meaty material to thrash out opinions on.
    I really liked the arc of Anouk’s story, that was all about her getting to the point where she could clear away everything else making claims on her life, so she could do that one thing she really wanted to do, which was write her book. That is usually a story with a male protagonist.

  14. I rarely come out of lurkdom, and this is my safe online place, but I understand and really identify with Rosie. As a working class woman who has had to face constant being looked ‘down on’ I understand her anger.
    Promise to delurk more often, because I think you are all great but honestly, the interwebs scare the bejeezus out of me.

  15. Kirsty, as I understand it – and I’ve read the book as well (Should go back and check if I’ve got this wrong) Rosie is middle- to upper- class but with an alternative lifestyle which mean her house and posessions are far scruffier than the other families’. Koula and Alex, who ARE working class and now successful, hold her in contempt because they haven’t any template for throwing away wealth or status other than fecklessness. Rosie’s partner Gary is obviously educated (see him coaching Richie on English Lit) but has a working class job. So they’re an amalgam.

  16. I agree with the sexism and chiched nature of the Connie’s lie thread. There were quite a few other sexist threads as well – e.g. Manolo’s wife (Toula? Koula?) as a one-dimensional nagging racist harpy and submissive Sandy. But that was partly a result of the point-of-view structure. There were also a few little critiques of society’s prejudices that I liked – Harry’s sister being so second class in her family as a divorced daughter compared to golden son, Shamira taking off her head scarf for court to avoid being stereotyped.
    I read somewhere that the author consulted with straight women for the sex scenes. It didn’t show, particularly the scene in episode 1 of the quicky on the kitchen bench.
    I also thought that ending Connie and Richie’s chapters with them finding a boyfriend and instantly forgetting about their angst was a cliche.

  17. they haven’t any template for throwing away wealth or status other than fecklessness.

    What a perceptive phrase.
    On the Koula-as-harpy topic. It rankled that we are clearly supposed to feel sympathy for Manolis’ musing on the fact that he will never get to touch a young woman again. Does anyone offer any sense that old women are entitled to desire young men? If she does, does she have any realistic ability to simply go and buy the opportunity to caress young skin, the way Manolis can? Suckity double standards, again.

  18. It was compelling but not at all original and I don’t agree that it was at all unbiased because everybody did something awful. It just reinforced all the garden variety cultural narratives and social stereotypes that maintain gender relations and the social order. It was anti-child and anti-mother. Hugo is supposed to be some kind of devil child for being seen and heard and not conforming to Victorian ideals of child behaviour. He is demonised for acting out when he finds himself surrounded by older children and unsupported in a non age-appropriate activity, and not understanding a complex cricket ruling. Then when a violent and abusive man assaults him, it was all his fault. When his mother has the perpetrator charged it becomes all her fault and she is the one who ends up on trial instead of the perpetrator. Nothing new about that paradigm, and of course there is a lying false rape- claiming slut just in case we don’t already get the message being presented to us.
    It’s telling that on the “Whose side are you on?” poll, nobody is on Rosie’s side. But it’s even more telling that Hugo’s name is not on there at all so nobody can be on Hugo’s side. Hugo was a central character but his voice and perspective are absent from the narrative. What a surprise.

    • It was compelling but not at all original and I don’t agree that it was at all unbiased because everybody did something awful.

      Agreed. It balanced the narrative, but that doesn’t make the narrative itself unbiased.

  19. I read the book so had no desire to watch the series. What did irk me watching bits and pieces was casting a non-Indian in the role of Aisha. Seriously? No Indian actors could have played the part? Substitute another brown skinned woman and that’s sorted?
    I would love to know the thinking behind that casting. I admit that I don’t watch much television – maybe Okonedo is an accomplished and popular actor. Also might be more miffed than I should be as I myself am an Indian vet.

    • Casting Okenedo was probably key to getting BBC co-funding and selling it to the UK market (they’re currently about halfway through the episodes there now) – she is extremely popular there (just got her OBE last year).
      That said, there must be plenty of accomplished Indian actresses in the UK who could have been cast with an eye to drawing a UK audience. Why not Meera Syal (although I guess she’s more fifty-ish than 40-ish)?

  20. I wondered that too. The gorgeous Leah Vandenberg isn’t Indian (her father is Sri Lankan) but probably close enough for your generic Australian audience. Or they could have used any number of Bollywood actresses you would have thought. Not that I’m dissing Sophie Okenedo, I thought she was fabulous and I would like to see her on screen a lot more.
    It took me a while to realise that the portrayal of Hugo changed as the series went on. Obviously in the first episode he featured a lot as the child at the centre of the whole shebang – but what they focussed on was his behaviour. Sometimes he was only in the background, or as an attachment to Rosie. Even in Rosie’s episode he was only there briefly as an object -seemingly used to keep her husband at bay, or something that tied them together.
    I thought the ending was a bit too pat too, although the attempted suicide was pretty awful.

  21. It has been some time since I have read the book and I would like to go back and check the Aisha, Connie and Richie chapters. (possible book spoiler) Am I imagining that there was another false accusation in Richie’s chapter in the book which was left out of the tv show?
    Also, if the “false rape accusation” was removed would this have greatly changed the story? If Connie had told Richie what “really” happened I can still imagine him obsessed/angry/revolted at his jealousy. I can still imagine Gary feeling vindicated and Rosie’s sense of betray. We are still talking about 17 year olds, and children of friends and colleges – Hector’s behaviour remains unacceptable. Connie may have still said that Richie was lying. Rosie and Gary would still question who to believe, Aisha would still wonder if it linked to Hector’s earlier admission of an affair with a young woman.
    I think this alternative almost rounds out The Slap more effectively: How do people live in a community when the level of “wrongness” is subjective?

  22. Katte, I agree, having Connie tell Richie the truth: or even a version of the truth, would have been a much more interesting (and much less sexist) choice for Tsolkas to make. I mean, even if all she had said was “He touched me” instead of “He raped me”.

  23. The feelings of teenage boys towards men who, I suppose prey, on teenage girls is certainly something that could have been explored more without the fake rape accusation. That would have been interesting television.

    • The feelings of teenage boys towards men who, I suppose prey, on teenage girls is certainly something that could have been explored more without the fake rape accusation. That would have been interesting television.

      Connie could have quite accurately sobbed “Hector seduced me” and then Richie could have been urging her to expose him as a perv rather than as a rapist, and still been obsessing over Hector’s sexual confidence compared to his own sexual doubts.

  24. I’ve only watched the first episode (not read the book) and I’m hating the way Hugo, the little kid, is depicted. There seems to be some kind of peverse storyworld logic where children are monsters who hit and kick and break things unless they’re regularly beaten. Which seems just a tad counterintuitive to me.

  25. It’s not that Hugo isn’t beaten, from my POV, it’s that his parents don’t seem to set any limits on his behaviour at all and no one is allowed to say a cross word to him nor is anyone believed who says he has behaved badly. Even when his parents see him behaving badly they seem to ignore it or excuse it as perfectly reasonable for his age. As a parent of children of a similar age I would do things differently, and I’m sure there are people who think I’m a slack parent.
    For example when Hugo has a tantrum and breaks the Playstation in the first episode it isn’t Hugo who gets in trouble for breaking something, it’s the older children for expecting too much from him (from Rosie Hugo’s mother). So the idea that you can’t just throw and break things when you get frustrated is never explained to Hugo. Nothing is ever his fault, or Rosie simply refuses to believe that Hugo could possibly have done what someone else thinks he has done.
    I think this is the author’s take on how ‘hippy’ parents parent their children (while I don’t know a lot of hippie parents the ones I do know have beautifully behaved children regardless of the fact their parents don’t believe in smacking, they do believe in socialising their children). (I’m basing this purely on the series, I’m seriously considering putting the book on my to read list).

  26. “Richie could have been urging her to expose him as a perv rather than as a rapist, ”
    But that would mean naming Hector as a predator and this story is all about male entitlement so we couldn’t have Hector being in the wrong.
    The other story line I had forgotten about is Anouk’s boyfriend playing the wronged man and feeling like he had reproductive rights to another person’s body. Also, I’m glad they showed that a childless woman still usually has caring responsibilities.
    Kirsty, I hear you. Sometimes it feels like the middle classes are constantly splaining to us.

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