Writer Alice Bell tack­les a Tol­stoy clas­sic by giv­ing it a sport­ing twist, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Rose­mary Neill

On the street, a sex worker paces back and forth while cradling a me­tal­lic ball in her canyonesque cleav­age. Two storeys up, Alice Bell, dressed in stylish heels and a pretty pas­tel jumper, sits and talks about love. The self-trained, award-win­ning screen­writer has an of­fice in the ir­reg­u­larly beat­ing heart of Syd­ney’s Kings Cross, just steps away from the red light dis­trict’s gar­ishly ad­ver­tised peep shows and strip joints.

Yet this pe­tite, un­der­stated young woman jokes that “for a while there, I be­came the go-to girl for vir­gin­ity. It was Pu­berty Blues, The Slap.’’ In both these prize-win­ning dra­mas, Bell (who looks and sounds younger than she is) fo­cused on sex­u­ally in­ex­pe­ri­enced teenage char­ac­ters.

How­ever, for her latest pro­ject, a mod­ern adap­ta­tion of Tol­stoy’s Anna Karen­ina called The Beau­ti­ful Lie, she grap­ples with one of literature’s most com­plex and tor­tured re­la­tion­ships: the ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair be­tween the novel’s doomed hero­ine and her dash­ing lover. Bell says with a self-mock­ing laugh: “We don’t have any vir­gin­ity loss in The Beau­ti­ful Lie; maybe I’ve grown up. But I do think it’s my ter­ri­tory a lit­tle bit, sex and talk­ing.”

The film and TV writer is 36, yet her CV al­ready boasts two Aus­tralian Writ­ers Guild awards and an ARIA Award, while the first fea­ture film she scripted, black com­edy-thriller Sub­ur­ban May­hem, was in­vited to the Cannes film fes­ti­val when she was just 27.

The Beau­ti­ful Lie trans­plants Tol­stoy’s high­stakes love story from the grand houses and coun­try es­tates of 19th-cen­tury Rus­sia to the sub­urbs of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralia. Tol­stoy’s Anna — the wife of a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial who aban­dons her hus­band and child in the name of pas­sion — re-emerges as a re­tired ten­nis star, por­trayed by Sarah Snook. Anna’s hus­band (Rodger Corser) is also a for­mer ten­nis cham­pion, while Anna’s lover, a mil­i­tary of­fi­cer in the novel, is rein­vented as a wom­an­is­ing mu­sic pro­ducer, played by ris­ing star Bene­dict Sa­muel.

The 1000-page epic about a priv­i­leged woman who chucks over­board ev­ery­thing that anchors her life was shock­ing for its time. To­day, a woman leav­ing her hus­band is not nearly as trans­gres­sive, so Bell re­cast the mod­ern Anna and the hus­band she be­trays as one­time sports cham­pi­ons re­garded as na­tional role mod­els. “We look up to our sports he­roes, they seem to take on another level of sta­tus, so that was part of the de­ci­sion to make them ten­nis play­ers,’’ she ex­plains. Anna’s hus­band is “the golden boy of Aus­tralian ten­nis, so in leav­ing him, Anna sort of of­fends the whole na­tion’’.

Co-writ­ten with Jonathan Gavin, the six­part drama is a med­i­ta­tion on the dif­fer­ent man­i­fes­ta­tions of love: how it can be life-af­firm­ing, but also reck­less and cor­ro­sive.

As the writer talks, her close friend, the high­pro­file ac­tor and pro­ducer Claudia Kar­van, jabs away at a com­puter key­board, large head­phones jammed on her ears. The women share this small of­fice in the el­e­gant Min­ton House, a build­ing that has long been a mag­net for artists. Bell and Kar­van have co­in­ci­den­tally rocked up to­day in vir­tu­ally match­ing pink jumpers and stretch jeans. They joke it’s their work uni­form.

Bell has writ­ten four of The Beau­ti­ful Lie’s six episodes, but she re­veals it was the show’s co­pro­ducer and her for­mer men­tor John Ed­wards ( Pu­berty Blues, Off­spring, Tan­gle, Pa­per Giants: The Birth of Cleo) who urged her to adapt Anna Karen­ina a decade ago. Chil­dren and press­ing work dead­lines in­ter­vened, and she fi­nally read the novel last year. Be­fore she fin­ished it, she phoned Ed­wards to say, “I can ab­so­lutely see what you are talk­ing about. I’m sorry it’s taken me 10 years to read it.’’

As the se­ries evolves, Anna must cope with her young son turn­ing against her. Bell re­veals she found these scenes “re­ally hard to write”, largely be­cause she was sep­a­rated from her young daugh­ters, Frankie and Em­i­lie, for four months while she crafted them. Mon­day to Fri­day, she was in Mel­bourne writ­ing and act­ing as script su­per­vi­sor on set, while her girls, then aged five and three, re­mained in Syd­ney with her hus­band, ac­tor and di­rec­tor Leon Ford. “It was just so dif­fi­cult,’’ she laments. “There are all those things as a mum: guilt and the jug­gle and ques­tion­ing your own de­ci­sions. I feel like I re­ally went down a path with Anna.’’

If Anna chooses a path with an in­cal­cu­la­bly high cost, Bell took an un­usual route into the screen in­dus­try. She grew up in gen­tri­fied, har­bour­side Bal­main, but she skipped univer­sity and film school. “I was just one of those kids who wanted to work,’’ she says. When she landed a job as a re­cep­tion­ist at a now de­funct film com­pany, “I just used that as a univer­sity. I de­cided I’d stay there for three years and I’d learn ev­ery job that was in­volved in film­mak­ing.’’ At 20 she met the pro­ducer Leah Churchill-Brown and be­came her as­sis­tant. “She re­ally looked af­ter me and trained me,’’ she says.

She be­gan to write Sub­ur­ban May­hem, about a sex­u­ally ma­nip­u­la­tive teenager who plans to have her fa­ther mur­dered, in her early 20s. As she re­calls: “That’s when my life changed course. I’d al­ways done it (writ­ing) but I didn’t think I’d ever make a ca­reer out of it.’’ The film, star­ring New Zealan­der Emily Bar­clay, was screened at the 2006 Cannes film fes­ti­val and won an AWGIE Award for best orig­i­nal screen­play. Bell says of burst­ing on to the in­ter­na­tional film scene at 27: “I was so young, and I was so naive and I guess I just thought, ‘That’s what hap­pens.’ It was my first movie. You have this bol­shi­ness when you’re that young.’’

More awards fol­lowed. In 2007, she won an ARIA for co-di­rect­ing Sil­ver­chair’s Straight Lines mu­sic video (she has also co-di­rected mu­sic videos for Missy Higgins and Lit­tle Birdy). It was Ed­wards who head­hunted her as a TV writer as Sub­ur­ban May­hem an­nounced the ar­rival of an up­start tal­ent; af­ter eight weeks’ train­ing, she crafted a full episode of the cop drama Rush. “I learned on the job,’’ she says in some­thing of an un­der­state­ment. She also wrote the “Con­nie episode’’ for The Slap, the ac­claimed adap­ta­tion of Christos Tsi­olkas’s novel, for which she won a sec­ond AWGIE in 2012.

Although the TV as­sign­ments kept com­ing, she has com­pleted scripts for two fea­ture films, Gin and Tonic and The Cir­cus, which are await­ing fi­nanc­ing deals. Un­sur­pris­ingly, they re­volve around ro­mance and fam­ily life, Bell’s favourite cre­ative hang­out. “Re­la­tion­ship dra­mas are end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing, be­cause peo­ple are end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing in their re­la­tion­ships,’’ she says as a siren tears through the Cross’s un­easy, lunchtime calm.

The Beau­ti­ful Lie pre­mieres to­mor­row on ABC at 8.30pm.

Alice Bell and, right, Bene­dict Sa­muel and Sarah Snook

in The Beau­ti­ful Lie

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