The Big Little Lies showrunner and one of its stars are back with an addictive new limited series – and they’ve brought Hugh Grant along for the ride.
Nicole Kidman does a lot of walking in The Undoing. The new HBO murder-mystery miniseries features seemingly endless shots of her character, Grace Fraser, crossing busy Manhattan streets or wandering past one specific section of Central Park’s eastern wall, usually in some really great boots. To an extent, all that strolling is just narrative groundwork – Grace’s love of walking the city will pop up as a plot point before too long – but it also helps convey a clear message to viewers: we’re not in Monterey anymore, Toto.
Monterey, of course, is the Californian setting of Big Little Lies, Kidman’s previous project with TV writer David E. Kelley. There, the equivalent of Grace’s flaneuring was Reese Witherspoon’s car as it drove back and forth across the Bixby Creek Bridge; any walking occurred only on sandy beaches, in bare feet. I bring it up only because, at first glance, The Undoing seems to be repeating all the same tricks that made that show such a hit. Rich people? Romantical problems? Shocking murder? Lies big and small? Check, check, check and check. There’s even a fancy school, Reardon, around which much of the action revolves, allowing for plenty of school-gate gossip between Grace and her equally chic friends.
The impression that The Undoing is little more than the same show in a different location reaches its peak halfway through episode one, at a school fundraising gala. Like most on-screen parties, this is largely an excuse for all the main players to gather in the same room, Big Little Lies-style, with Kelley also fitting in a smidgen of that show’s modest class satire. Addressing a billionaire’s penthouse filled with guests dressed to the nines – Kidman in a particularly magnificent pleated Givenchy gown – the host for the evening asks them to dig deep, to ensure that “the name Reardon is always synonymous with diversity”, before auctioning off a glass of water, starting bid $1000.
But impressions can be deceiving. While The Undoing offers the same wealth-porn as its predecessor, and the same high-brow sort of soapiness, it’s an altogether more sombre affair. The story revolves around Grace, an in-demand therapist happily married to cancer doctor Jonathan (Hugh Grant); she’s daughter to the mysteriously wealthy Franklin (Donald Sutherland) and mother to teenage son Henry (Noah Jupe). As the show begins, Grace meets the very beautiful, very intense Elena (Matilda De Angelis) who, it’s clear, has an oddly erotic interest in her. Before Grace can offer Elena some much-needed free counselling, there’s a murder, and a disappearance, and Grace’s life quickly begins to unravel.
The Undoing is directed by Susanne Bier, the acclaimed Danish director whose previous TV work includes the John le Carré adaption The Night Manager, and she brings a chilly European eye to this very New York tale. Between Franklin’s cavernous, dimly lit apartment and the velvet and cashmere in which Grace swaddles herself, there’s a message being sent about the cocooning effects of money – and its limits when the shit truly hits the fan. That’s not to suggest The Undoing has particularly deep things to say about wealth and power; this is first and foremost six episodes of classy psychological-thriller fare. Think Vertigo or Gone Girl, or even the minor Julia Roberts movie Sleeping with the Enemy – but with even better hair (seriously, Kidman’s hair in this thing is spectacular).
As Grace’s husband, Hugh Grant is his usually charming and urbane self… and then quite rapidly not. The range he shows here may come as a surprise to viewers whose familiarity with his acting doesn’t extend much beyond period films and romcoms. But in fact he’s been this interesting an actor for years now, stealing scenes in everything from the sublime Paddington 2 – as the villainous failed actor Phoenix Buchanan – to Stephen Frears’ A Very English Scandal, for which Grant was nominated for an Emmy, a Bafta and a Golden Globe.
Some of the other casting choices are a little less successful. Three of the supporting actors, all of them portraying lawyers, oddly enough, are British and Danish actors employing American accents, with varying degrees of success. Each is more than fine in their part – especially Douglas Hodge (The Great) who seems to be cornering the market for playing shambling, dissolute middle-aged men – but you can’t help wonder why they didn’t just use the real deal instead. At least the Australian Kidman has had a quarter of a century to get the US accent really spot on.
But those are small quibbles. To the bigger question – is The Undoing the new Big Little Lies? – the answer is: not really. It has none of the crowd-pleasing wit of that show – but also none of the overblown campiness or wearying stunt casting. What The Undoing does have are shocking twists, end-of-episode cliff-hangers, a mystery that will keep you guessing, and some very, very good coats. And that’ll do me.
The Undoing starts tonight on SoHo and Neon.
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