Nicole Kidman collapses in spectacular fashion in the new HBO limited series “The Undoing.”
Her Grace Fraser collapses emotionally, she collapses financially, and at one point she collapses in Central Park when she is overwhelmed by events in her life — but even when Kidman literally takes the fall, she does so with a grace befitting her character’s name, wearing a stylishly coordinated ensemble, her luxurious red curls flowing about as if she’s a princess from another time, or maybe a star in a Tori Amos video from the early 2000s.
Even when “The Undoing” stretches credibility to the near breaking point and drips with lurid melodrama, it’s one visually arresting series, with beautifully framed shots (often showcasing the life of One Percenters in Manhattan), and Kidman and Hugh Grant proving they’ve still got that movie star magic we first saw in each of them some three decades ago.
This series might as well have been called “Undoing the Big Little Lies that Started Little Fires Everywhere,” as it follows the formula of adapting a recently penned and popular page-turning murder mystery for a premium cable limited series set mostly in wealthy enclaves and starring A-list actors playing characters who are frantically juggling very complicated lives when things are turned upside down by crimes and misdemeanors — sometimes even MURDER, that’s right I said MURDER.
Based on the novel “You Should Have Known” by Jean Hanff Korelitz, written by the prolific and skilled veteran David E. Kelley (whose credits include “Big Little Lies”) and directed by the gifted Susanne Bier (the terrific miniseries “The Night Manager,” the Netflix horror smash “Bird Box”), “The Undoing” is set in a Manhattan community where the parents live in seven-figure duplexes, send their children to obscenely expensive private schools, listen only to classical music and hold a fundraiser high atop the glass tower that is One State Street Plaza. They all talk as if they think they’re in a Woody Allen film from the 1970s — but they often come across as superficial, cynical, cold and judgmental. You wouldn’t want to spend time with them in real life, but they’re fun to watch from your living room.
Kidman’s Grace is a pricey therapist, and her husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant) is a highly regarded oncologist who has a dry biscuit of a British quip for every occasion but also has a wonderful bedside manner with his child patients and still cares so much about his work after all these years that when he returns home after losing one, he collapses weeping into his wife’s arms. Grace and Jonathan’s son Henry (Noah Jupe, the talented, young actor from “A Quiet Place” and “Ford v. Ferrari”) has an adorable mop of curly hair, plays the violin and loves spending time with his parents. He’s the perfect kid! Or is he...
The filmmakers do a stellar job of introducing us to the Fraser family and their daily routines and bringing in some key supporting characters — including the great Donald Sutherland as Grace’s stern and powerful and wealthy father, Franklin — when the aforementioned MURDER occurs. When the mother of one of Henry’s classmates is found brutally bludgeoned to death in her art studio, the lives of Grace, Jonathan and Henry quickly unravel.
In episode after episode, Grace learns shocking truths about Jonathan and finds her life spinning out of control as the media swarms in, her husband disappears, a prime suspect is identified, and she’s continually pestered by the lead detective (Edgar Ramirez) who is either telling her things she didn’t know about her life or asking disturbing questions making it seem like SHE could be involved in this bloody mess.
“The Undoing” is bathed in rich, autumnal colors as we quickly get to the trial portion of the proceedings, which of course feature all sorts of goings-on you’d never see in real life. But who cares, as we’re firmly in guilty-pleasure courtroom thriller territory by now!
Matilda de Angelis makes a splash as Elena, a younger mother at the school who takes an odd and sudden liking to Grace, and seems to delight in making her uncomfortable, as when she reintroduces herself in the locker room of a health club and stands fully naked in front of Grace, casually running a finger along her torso. Is she trying to seduce Grace? Is she crazy? What’s her deal? Oh, the things we’ll find out, sometimes in flashback.
I also got a kick out of Donald Sutherland’s performance as Grace’s crusty old father, Franklin, who always sounds as if he’s onstage doing Shakespeare, even when spouting ridiculous lines, e.g., at the aforementioned fundraiser when he says, “I bid on the silent auction, I’m apt to win one of Henry Ford’s original dipsticks.” That’s also how Franklin has long regarded his son-in-law Jonathan — as an original dipstick — but is Jonathan the one who committed the murder? You’ll find out over the course of six quick episodes filled with empty yet satisfying entertainment calories.