The first two episodes of ABC’s highly anticipated eight part adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’s best-selling novel The Slap (film #53) were screened last night as part of the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival.

The evening got off on a shaky start, with the program’s producer/director Tony Ayres taking the gong for, by far, the longest speech so far in the festival – an affectionate roll-out of thank-yous, reflections and ummas and aahs. But Ayres lost his momentum, began waffling and was eventually interrupted by one cranky punter who yelled out “we came here to see the film!” to which a large chunk of the audience applauded. Ayres responded “well I guess that’s all from me” and fast-footed to his seat. That. Was. Awkward.

Set to begin screening on Australian TV screens late September, The Slap examines how a bunch of lives are affected by an incident at a 40th birthday barbecue in which an adult man, Harry (Alex Dimitriades), slaps a misbehaving, unrelated little boy.

The first episode follows the now 40-year-old Hector (Jonathan LaPaglia) and takes three quarters of the running time get to the titular event. The moment is handled perfectly; it’s crucial that judgements associated with the event — right or wrong, justified or not — are entirely left to the viewer to determine.

The dramas and interpersonal relationships are engrossing from the get-go, the story like a David Williamson script that actually has bite, tension and doesn’t pander to racial or cultural stereotypes. The Slap presents a view of middle class multicultural Australia rarely seen in film and television.

An ultra buff Jonathan LaPaglia carries the first ep well as Hector, but is physically an awkward fit, resembling more a ‘roid popping body builder than a middle class Everyman. The manner with which director Jessica Hobbs begins the episode, photographing LaPaglia walking around either topless or robed in a shirt with buttons undone, the camera embracing the glowing regions of his taut upper body, gives the production an unfortunate whiff of sleaziness that takes considerable time to drift away.

The second episode follows Anouk (Essie Davis), a TV producer with a sick mother and a young celebrity boyfriend. Davis is also impressive and guides a substantial change of pace, with a slower and more personal focus. Watching the two episodes back to back provided a sharp, slightly disorientating change in dramatic tension and tempo, and observing how the rhythm of each episode will change according to the eight different characters and four different directors (Jessica Hobbs, Robert Connolly, Tony Ayres and Matthew Saville) will provide intriguing contrasts.

Matching the hype associated with The Slap is a solid ensemble of Australian talent, from the four aforementioned directors to a cast that includes LaPaglia, Davis, Anthony Hayes, Melissa George, Alex Dimitriades and Sophie Lowe. Going by the first two episodes, The Slap is likely to become a huge critical and popular success.