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Is The Undoing actually great?

Or just a run-of-the-mill thriller with a brilliant casting director?

November 5, 2020

3:55 PM

5 November 2020

3:55 PM

The Undoing

HBO

There must be some people somewhere who vaguely know their own spouses — but if so, they don’t tend to appear in domestic-based thrillers. Last Sunday when HBO’s The Undoing began, Jonathan and Grace Fraser (Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman) seemed to have the happiest of middle-aged marriages. They still laughed at each other’s jokes. They still kept each other fully informed about the kind of day they’d had at work: he as a kindly child oncologist, she as an unfailingly wise therapist. Not only did they still have sex, but when they did, it wasn’t always in bed.

True, they weren’t wholly without their problems. Their loving son Henry, for example, sometimes didn’t clean up after making smoothies. Nonetheless, even their equally rich and pampered peers on New York’s Upper East Side regarded Jonathan and Grace with obvious envy.

Two episodes on, and their gilded life has duly been obliging enough to fall apart. The trouble began when, to general consternation, a hot young working-class woman called Elena turned up among the moms at Henry’s $50,000-a-year private school, her own son having got a scholarship. At one fundraising meeting, she breastfed her baby with a weird display of aggression. Later at the gym, she again flaunted her ample assets (© Mail Online) in Grace’s direction and asked the unnerving question: ‘Do I unnerve you?’ Most disruptive of all, she was then found bludgeoned to death.


At first, suspicion fell on Elena’s husband — but now it’s firmly on Grace’s. Which is why Kidman spent most of Sunday’s second episode finding an impressive range of ways to look distressed. Then again, she had plenty to look distressed about. For one thing, it transpired that Jonathan hadn’t gone to an oncology conference in Cleveland, as claimed, on the day after Elena’s death. For another, the main reason he hadn’t is that he’s not an oncologist anymore, having been sacked three months previously for ‘inappropriate contact’ with a patient’s mother. For a third, the mother he’d been inappropriately contacting was Elena.

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The Undoing is written by David E. Kelley, whose many TV hits include Chicago HopeAlly McBeal and Big Little Lies, another tale of school moms featuring Nicole Kidman. The director is Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) who here specializes in rather eccentric close-ups, not least of one or other of Kidman’s eyeballs. Even so, what gives the program its star quality are its stars. Grant possibly wasn’t at full stretch playing Jonathan in happier times — as a stage Englishman who satirizes his own charm while still exuding bags of it. (But doesn’t he do it well?) After Jonathan’s suspiciously non-Cleveland absence, however, he returned looking convincingly desperate as he unavailingly protested his innocence of the murder to Grace. Kidman, for her part, is pretty much perfect as a woman ill-equipped to deal with any version of life that isn’t pretty much perfect.

These two are so good, in fact, that it’s not easy to tell whether The Undoing is properly great or just a run-of-the-mill thriller with a brilliant casting director. Either way, though, I can’t wait to find out what happens.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the US edition here.


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