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Little Birds review – Anaïs Nin adaptation is risque and resonant

Alisahil

Aug. 04, 2020

I t says nothing good about the age I am or the one we are living in that the thing I find most erotic about Anaïs Nin ’s famously risque short stories is that she was paid a dollar a page by “a collector” to write them. Adjusted for inflation, it’s a rate freelancers today would weep to see and I would like to take this opportunity to state that if there is still any market for bespoke written erotica, I am available for hire.
It will be interesting to see if there is still a market for visual erotica, the appeal of which is at least part of the raison d’etre behind Sky Atlantic’s new drama series Little Birds , based on Nin’s second collection of stories.
The six-part series follows cosseted Wasp princess and heiress to an arms manufacturing fortune Lucy Savage (Juno Temple) as she leaves the dysfunctional parental home – her father is conscienceless and controlling, and her mother, as a result, is a tranquillised, alcoholic, perfectly styled wreck – for Tangier. And, if she but knew it, an even more dysfunctional life married to impoverished lord Hugo Cavendish-Smyth (Hugh Skinner).
Hugo is gay, deeply closeted – we are in 1955 – and in love with Egyptian prince Adham Abaza (Raphael Acloque), who reacts badly to the news that a wife is on the way. Lucy is seduced by Morocco and, in the absence of any equivalent endeavour by her husband, falls ever more gladly under its spell. It turns out that a year’s worth of experimental medication you are given by your doctor, in secret cahoots with your father, to free you from “troublesome behaviours and distracting wants” can only do so much in the face of a land full of hitherto unsuspected delights and fabulous degenerates.
For the viewers, too, Tangier is a heady creation designed to suffuse the senses. A slightly stagey, effortful-Wes-Anderson vibe in the first episode gives way, as we leave America for Egypt, to a softer, altogether lusher aesthetic – sun, sea, silks and sand. There are saturated colours everywhere you look, topped by turquoise skies and punctuated by the overbright greens of mansion lawns where the lavishly dressed elite lounge, served by brown-skinned natives. It’s Douglas Sirk with extra torque on his subversive vision of the suburban dream.
Lucy’s journey towards independence is paralleled by that of fierce dominatrix Cherifa (Yumna Marwan), much of whose custom comes from the French colonialists otherwise in charge of her life. As the injustices perpetrated against her people pile up, the country’s own move towards liberty begins to galvanise even those who, as she says of herself early on, “have no time for politics”. The two women gradually form a friendship to help them navigate their new internal and external worlds.
If the female characters are foremost – as you might expect in an adaptation of the work of someone widely considered to be what we might call the breakthrough artist of women’s erotic fiction, and written and directed by women (Sophia Al-Maria and Stacie Passon, respectively) – the men are neither forgotten nor sidelined. Hugo is trapped not only by his inadmissible sexuality but also by Lucy’s father Grant (David Costabile) who forces his new son-in-law to find the contacts he needs in order to break into the imminently lucrative African arms market, or else he will cut off the allowance he agreed to pay him for marrying his daughter. It is a neat portrait of how patriarchy skews and screws things up not just for women but for men who do not fit the narrow and rigid conventions it prescribes.
In short, for a series inspired by dollar-a-page work written to get one client off, it packs a lot in (insert your own joke here, by all means). The impact of colonialism; the subtleties and hammer blows of racism (from the ladies by expat Contessa’s pool who embarrass Cherifa’s boyfriend by making him hold the hose they drink from, to the beggar boy killed without consequence by a passing French soldier for putting up a picture of the king); the endless power of men to control the lives of others; the myriad forms sexuality will take if only it is allowed. And of course I’m joking about Nin’s stories being nothing more than sexy hack work. There was much more to them than that, and Little Birds is a series that honours them and their spirit, adding even more to them and making them resonate anew.
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