Loosely adapted from Anais Nin’s posthumous collection of erotic short stories, Little Birds follows Lucy Savage (Juno Temple), an American debutante who travels to Tangier in Morocco to marry a posh and bumbling English aristocrat (Hugh Skinner). She plans to pursue an unconventional life, free from the societal cage in which she’s been trapped in 1950s New York.
Lucy’s father (played with quiet menace by David Costabile) is a domineering weapons dealer who pumps her full of pills to suppress her troublesome desires – which are, as far as I can tell, cravings for adventurous sex and practically any kind of fun at all. The medication makes her vacant and glassy-eyed, and Temple portrays anxiety convincingly, her smiles empty and her teeth permanently lodged in her trembling bottom lip.
Her new husband Hugo William Constable Cavendish-Smyth (yes, really) is gay. Everyone in Tangier knows it, except Lucy. Their wedding night is an excruciating game of cat and mouse in which she chases him around the bedroom, nibbling his ears and whispering that she wants to “ravish” him. The drugs don’t work, it seems.
All of the action takes place in a surreal, pastel-coloured world that looks like the inside of a strawberry-flavoured Angel Delight. Little Birds’ eccentric characters could be cousins of the Royal Tenenbaums, with a therapist who randomly breaks into eerie song and a scene where a small chainsaw is used to carve a chicken. It is hyper-stylised and the outfits are exquisite – Villanelle would kill for Lucy’s ra-ra wedding dress.
The EL James influence comes in through the characters Lucy meets. On the boat over to Tangier, she gets to know Lili von X (Nina Sosanya), an American celebrity who is in Morocco to make a film too sexually risque for the United States. She tells Lucy about having the ultimate sexual climax while watching a death by hanging in Paris. There’s also a dominatrix in town who Lucy becomes fascinated by.
If that all sounds rather hectic and disjointed, that’s because it is. It’s unclear exactly which characters to focus on and what their motives are, and tonally the show is confused. On the one hand, it’s very silly and gloriously camp. On the other, there are serious themes of coercion, enforced medication and psychological manipulation, as well as a subplot about colonialism in Fifties Morocco.
Perhaps it’s best if, like poor Lucy and her husband Hugo are bound to, Wes Anderson and EL James each keep to their own sides of the bed.