United Kingdom

Hugh Grant's a plodder... but Nicole Kidman is a thriller: CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews The Undoing

The Undoing - Sky Atlantic

Rating:

You have to wonder why Hugh Grant does it. The 60-year-old has been declaring airily for decades that he detests acting. 

It's his favourite headline-grabber whenever an interview is flagging.

'I hate it quite a lot, all acting,' he bragged to Vanity Fair back in 2003, and last year he was still saying it – telling fellow thesp Matthew McConaughey: 'It's so boring. I'm a miserable human being on a film set.'

What he particularly loathes, he says, is the way 'I repeated myself almost identically about 17 times in a row'.

You have to wonder why Hugh Grant does it. The 60-year-old has been declaring airily for decades that he detests acting, writes CHRISTOPHER STEVENS. Pictured: Grant alongside Nicola Kidman and Noah Jupe in The Undoing

Yet here he is again, in The Undoing (Sky Atlantic), playing a loveably flustered Englishman. 

Self-deprecating, wry, shy and melancholy, he pulls a pained expression and mumbles: 'Well, I, yes, it's absolutely, oh flump, no, of course, hmm, well, no, flumpitty-flump.'

He can't need the money. He made more than £11million from the sale of an Andy Warhol painting of Liz Taylor that, he likes to claim, he bought for a song at Sotheby's when he was drunk.

And it's not as if there's nothing else he can do. 

As former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe in the political drama A Very English Scandal two years ago, Grant was excellent – so good that even the most grudging fans were mystified he had never really bothered flexing his talent before.

Now he's back to the same old tired routine, in a role that he could perform in his sleep: bumbling through his lines as cancer doctor Jonathan Fraser.

In The Undoing, Grant plays a loveably flustered Englishman, while his co-star Nicole Kidman is his super-rich wife Grace

Co-star Nicole Kidman, as his super-rich wife Grace, is well aware that he's not trying.

When we first saw them together, in the splendid kitchen of their New York brownstone mansion, she was straightening his tie and teasing him that he looked like he was going to a funeral... again. 

She didn't need to mention the four weddings. Grant's laziness doesn't damage the drama. It suits the character. 

We guess from the start that Jonathan is lying to Grace, though he scarcely needs to bother. 

A therapist who thinks she understands everyone else's problems, Grace is so pleased with her marriage that the idea her husband is deceiving her never crosses her mind. 

Her smug world, we sense, is about to implode.

Ever so kindly, she pities the mothers at her son's private school whose marriages are less wonderful than her own and condescends to the poorer ones whose children are on scholarships. 

At the fundraising auction she organises, in a penthouse that quite literally looks down on Manhattan, Grace smiles with an arch awareness of her moral superiority, as parents compete to donate the most.

A glass of tap water fetches a thousand dollars. 

The mums in Miss Kidman's previous TV thriller about sudden death at the school gates, Big Little Lies, were paupers by comparison with this crowd.

Fans of that drama will relish this one. 

It's pacy, suspenseful and resists the temptation to leap back and forwards through the story, instead letting events build to nerve-racking cliffhangers.

The Undoing is pacy, suspenseful and resists the temptation to leap back and forwards through the story, instead letting events build to nerve-racking cliffhangers

Whether she's fussing with the food blender, power-walking to a meeting or just taking a shower, Miss Kidman cannot be bettered as the ultra-competitive mother who cannot switch off her perfectionist instincts. 

Even when she's asleep, she looks tense.

There's no actress more believable as she lets us glimpse the fraught, frantic energy expended in projecting a serene facade.

Donald Sutherland has a brief scene as Grace's viciously wealthy father. It's a role he, too, has played often enough. 

Unlike Grant, though, he doesn't coast when he's on screen.

The unknown element is supplied by Italian actress Matilda De Angelis. 

She plays struggling artist Elena, whose son has won a place at the $50,000-a-year academy for the ultra-privileged.

Elena scandalises the other mothers by breastfeeding in public. 

She might be skint by their standards, but she can still afford to use the exclusive gym where Grace works out – and where Elena may be stalking Grace.

Hints of the killing to come are semaphored from the outset. The opening credits, to the tune of Dream A Little Dream Of Me, feature soft-focus shots of a little girl with red curling hair. 

She chases bubbles and tries on a white wedding veil – that is splashed, just for a moment, with blood.

When Jonathan walks his son through Central Park, pristine drifts of snow are banked along the paths. 

You almost expect Santa to swoosh by on his sleigh. That's what happens in some of Grant's soppier movies. 

This time, though, our hapless Englishman has blundered into a darker world.

The murder didn't happen until the final few minutes and the frustration is we can't discover more until next week – Sky is stretching this one out across six Mondays. 

It is also available via Now TV – but it might be more satisfying to wait till the whole series is online.

Grant is back to the same old tired routine, in a role that he could perform in his sleep: bumbling through his lines as cancer doctor Jonathan Fraser

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