Come for Nicole Kidman, in the hope that this new HBO miniseries will fill the Big Little Lies-shaped hole in your weekly viewing schedule, but stay for Hugh Grant. The roll that Grant has been on since Paddington 2 and A Very English Scandal continues with another mildly self-satirising role: he plays Jonathan Fraser, the witty, British and – if you like that sort of thing – sexy husband of Kidman’s elegant New Yorker, Grace.
Grace and Jonathan are living a wealthy, urban idyll on the Upper East Side (their school run is a stroll across a snowy Central Park), with busy careers as a therapist and paediatric oncologist, respectively. Work does not seem to impinge too much on their happy marriage, healthy sex life and easy-going parenting of their only child Henry (Noah Jupe), and Grace does it all in an enviable, jewel-toned wardrobe of velvet, chiffon and satin.
If any part of this life seems out of balance, it’s their cloistered social circle, centred on Reardon, the elite private school that Henry attends. Grace is a member of the school’s powerful parents committee but, we infer, is spared the indignity of having to jostle too hard for this position, since her wealthy and physically imposing father (Donald Sutherland) is a major donor. She instead derives a sense of security and personal authority from her own career.
Seeing Kidman in the practitioner’s chair is a neat reversal of Celeste’s fraught therapy scenes in the last season of Big Little Lies, but is Grace really so far removed from her clients? Her first appointment is with a woman complaining about her husband: “One minute he’s attentive, loving, the next he’s borderline abusive.” Her second is a couple is working through infidelity: “Part of the thrill of adultery is that it exists in the shadow of a primary relationship,” she suggests. If that foreshadowing is too subtle, I direct you to the title of the Jean Hanff Korelitz novel on which this series is based: You Should Have Known.
It is “scholarship mom” Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis) who inevitably bursts the Frasers’ bubble. She is younger than the other women on the auction committee and doesn’t have their material or social advantages. She is, however, gorgeous. Not since Lady Godiva’s horse ride has a pair of breasts been so effectively weaponised for class warfare. Elena first whips hers out at the fundraiser planning meeting to – not unreasonably – feed her infant daughter, but the others see this as a “hostile” and “passive-aggressive” act. That interpretation gains traction later, when Elena – fully nude this time – accosts Grace in the changing rooms of her gym, wanting to discuss what more she can do to help out at Reardon. And The Boobs aren’t done yet, either.
It all comes to a head at the fundraiser, held at one family’s obnoxiously lavish apartment (“Did you see the David Hockneys?”). Everyone who is anyone is there, including Elena’s cleavage. By the next morning Elena has been found murdered, Jonathan is uncontactable and it is beginning to occur to Grace that, perhaps, we can never really know those closest to us, even when we’re professional therapists, highly trained in the analysis of human behaviour.
Director Susanne Bier (The Night Manager, After The Wedding) and writer David E Kelley (Big Little Lies) both specialise in these portraits of well-to-do couples in carefully concealed freefall, but it’s the casting that elevates The Undoing above the next glossy psychological thriller. The mystery hinges on the extent to which we read Grant’s characteristic mannerism – that pursed half-smile and downward glance – as adorably bashful or inherently deceptive. Don’t you, like Grace, desperately want to believe that while Jonathan might be a bit of a bounder he is essentially a decent guy? Grant’s shifty demeanour makes for such a perfectly combustible match with Kidman’s brittle elegance that it is a surprise they haven’t been paired together before.
As enjoyably ambiguous as those lead performances are, it’s The Undoing’s support cast that leaves you wanting more. The NYPD detective duo, dogged Mendoza (Edgar Ramírez) and schlubby O’Rourke (Michael Devine) are like Columbo split in two halves. Lily Rabe is gossipy good fun as Grace’s resourceful confidante Sylvia, and future episodes feature scene-stealing turns from Noma Dumezweni, Sofie Gråbøl and Douglas Hodge. In the unlikely event that the cliffhanger-filled whodunnit doesn’t grip you, it’s absolutely worth sticking around to appreciate these masters at work.