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