‘The Undoing’ Is Addictive, Gripping, Exquisite Trash

Courtesy of HBO

Once a sure sign of career death for movie stars, and now anyone who’s anyone has a prestige drama miniseries on HBO or Netflix. The Undoing finds Nicole Kidman reuniting with her Big Little Lies writer David E. Kelly, this time adapting another airport novel, You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, a property with significantly less name recognition than Big Little Lies. And to say the two projects share a great deal in common would be an understatement.

Grace (Nicole Kidman) is an affluent New York psychologist, wife and mother. She’s married to pediatric oncologist Jonathan (Hugh Grant), and the two seem like the perfect couple living the perfect life. One day at an event for her son’s school, Grace meets the enigmatic Elena (Matilda de Angelis), a fellow school parent with whom she shares a few uncomfortable interactions. Shortly afterwards, Elena is found dead – brutally murdered in her own home. It isn’t long before Jonathan is suspected himself, as he has several ties to Elena and her family. However, it quickly becomes clear that everyone we meet is a suspect and nothing is exactly what it seems.

The Undoing is the best kind of superbly crafted, elegant trash. It’s constantly elevating the pulpy airport novel trappings of its source material, and that’s mostly due to Kidman and Grant’s stellar performances, and the supporting cast the show doesn’t use quite as well as it could. Susanne Bier’s direction and Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is crisp, eye-catching, and depicts a specific kind of New York – one with a glossy, sleek surface, only to reveal the bitter ugliness beneath. However, The Undoing is somewhat undone (sorry) by the same thing that hurt Big Little Lies. They just didn’t know how to end this thing.

But first, I’ll start with what does work, overwhelmingly, and that’s the two central performances. Kidman is doing some of her most nuanced work in years, and you never quite know whether or not to believe Grant as he becomes increasingly duplicitous as the story progresses. Their performances make this less of a murder-mystery and more of a study of a marriage in crisis – the secrets long buried and the resentments never voiced. Kidman and Grant are, luckily, more than up to the task of fleshing out these characters we’re never sure if we like very much. And those performances better work, because this show is very much a two-hander, and many great character actors get lost in the shuffle of the supporting cast.

American Horror Story vet Lily Rabe plays Grace’s friend Sylvia, a lawyer who seems to have her finger on the pulse of the investigation, but is rarely actually relevant in the proceedings. Édgar Ramírez plays one of the detectives who questions Grace, and has many suspicions about this couple. And he has absolutely nothing interesting to do, and treats this like a police procedural drama, which – fine, that’s basically what the story uses him for.

Noma Dumezweni, who plays Jonathan’s lawyer, gets some scene-stealing courtroom moments, but I would have liked to have known more about her character. And Broadway star Annaleigh Ashford plays a mother at Grace’s son’s school, and she gets about three lines. I am so tired of how Hollywood hasn’t figured out what to do with Annaleigh Ashford yet. Wasting her talent is helping no one. Donald Sutherland, however, gets a chance to give some of his best recent work as Grace’s father, who never liked Jonathan from the very beginning.

Now, how is The Undoing so similar to Big Little Lies? Well, they’re both methodically paced drama/thrillers with a superb Nicole Kidman at the center, and they’re both very cinematic and exquisitely made. They’re both intensely addictive and feel designed for binge watching. And neither quite knows how to stick the landing.

The Undoing deserves lots of credit for keeping me guessing right until the end, but once we get there, I’m kind of left with a “that’s it?” Everything we see in the previous six episodes prepares the viewer for a knockout twist ending that we never really get. After five-and-a-half episodes of red herrings, it feels like this story takes the easy way out, and maybe that’s how the book ended, I’m not sure. But it also feels like we’re missing a seventh wrap-things-up episode, because another thing about this ending is, it kind of just ends. We’re not left with any sense of closure on where any of the characters end up.

Ultimately, I was so taken with most of The Undoing that I would have no problem recommending it for a quick and easy binge. I inhaled all of its six episodes in under 24 hours, and it’s an insanely addictive mystery that ramps up tension continuously, before kind of dropping the ball. The ending doesn’t ruin the series in any way, you just might have expected more by the time you reach the final end credits.

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