Against a backdrop of hundreds of women coming forward only now with accusations of assault dating back decades, there’s something unnerving about a series that uses the dynamics of “he said/she said” for plot twists. But Liar is only the latest work of entertainment to find dramatic tension in the apparent ambiguity of sexual assault. Una, a 2017 film directed by Benedict Andrews, based on the hit play Blackbird by David Harrower, stars Rooney Mara as a young woman who confronts the family friend (Ben Mendelsohn) who had a physical and emotional relationship with her when she was 13. As in the play, the film’s narrative traction comes from how the audience interprets their divergent stories about what happened, and that the story seems far from black and white.
Doubt, the 2004 play by John Patrick Shanley, also revolves around a mystery involving an alleged offense committed by a Catholic priest against a young boy. To complicate things further, and to give some sense of Harvey Weinstein’s tentacular presence in Hollywood, Doubt was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and distributed by Miramax—the company Weinstein and his brother founded. Liar also may have links to Weinstein: The actress Alice Evans, who’s married to Gruffudd, wondered—in an essay published last month in The Telegraph—whether the producer torpedoed both her and her husband’s careers after she refused what she called his “sinister advances.” Within this context, where does the entertainment industry’s excessive preoccupation with sexual assault as a storyline move beyond exploring real human experiences into pathology?
“There’s no doubt that rape is one of the small screen’s most frequently used dramatic devices,” Variety’s Maureen Ryan wrote in a stellar examination of the subject in 2016. “Whether writers think it adds ‘edge’ or connotes character depth—and both of those assumptions are fraught—rape is prevalent in prestige vehicles, procedurals, and genre shows alike.” Far too often, sexual assault is used to add depth or to humanize “difficult” female characters like Game of Thrones’s Cersei, The Americans’ Elizabeth Jennings, or Scandal’s Mellie Grant. But to ignore the subject altogether is to paper over a subject whose visibility is becoming ever more crucial. The question is how to portray it in a way that doesn’t undermine the women who’ve experienced it.
Liar, in my mind, was a show that muddied the waters in its pursuit of extravagant twists. In the first episode, Laura, a newly single teacher, impulsively agreed to a date with Andrew, a single father whose son attended her school. He was a charming, attentive conversationalist; she had a few glasses of wine but was by no means drunk. When she woke up in the morning unable to remember how the night had ended, but traumatized by the sense that she’d been somehow violated, she called the police. The detectives and doctors who helped her were kind, understanding, and extremely professional. Froggatt’s performance as a woman completely jolted by the ordeal was intuitive and heartbreaking.