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Saturday, 31 October 2020

REVIEW: Star power can't save 'thriller' The Undoing.

 I watched The Undoing on Now TV catch-up during a really busy week; as busy you can get in a Tier 2 lockdown. It was an awkward stop/ start way of doing things, which sometimes you've just got to do, to squeeze some prestige TV into your week, and I ended up watching episode one on two different devices. The major problem was I just couldn't remember what the show was called, even after watching about 40 minutes. 

The Undoing is led by a pair of very big names - Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant as a very believable rich and successful married couple. The show is based on the 2014 novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz and adapted as a six-part miniseries by David E. Kelley, whose most recent big hit was Big Little Lies, with which this series shares a whole lot of DNA.

Kidman plays the very elegant, almost regal, Grace Fraser, a successful therapist who lives in a super-fancy part of New York City with her husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant, doing exactly what you'd expect of him), a superstar paediatric oncologist, and their son Henry (Noah Jupe), who attends the elite Reardon School - that's an eye-watering $50,000 per year in tuition fees, and a school run that's just a short walk through the beautiful wintery park.  Grace helps some of the other Reardon parents plan an auction event to raise funds for the school and at a planning meeting, Grace meets Elena (Matilda De Angelis). She's new to the school and to these heady social strata - her son Miguel (Edan Alexander) is attending on a scholarship - and even before Elena rather proudly breastfeeds her baby at the table with a bunch of very buttoned-up small-c conservative women, she's marked out as an entirely different creature to her new peers. She seems to glare when a woman at the table jokes about hating her children. I think the theme of what makes a good mum and what it means to be a 'real' woman is bound to be explored in later episodes.

Grace continues to encounter Elena over the next several days: once in a gym bathroom, where a fully nude Elena approaches her as Grace is seated, getting that enormously awkward face-to-privates angle that no one ever wants to experience. At the auction itself Grace finds Elena crying in the bathroom and consoles her. Elena keeps on thanking Grace for her kindness and it seems Grace really is kind, perhaps attuned to people's needs in a way her friends aren't as she deals in compassion for her job. As she leaves the event, Elena kisses Grace on the lips in the elevator. Is this a saucy come-on or is Elena naturally a woman who is less repressed about her feelings and her body than the Upper East Side set?  

The next day, Elena's corpse is discovered in her studio by Elena's poor son Miguel, who gives a terrific performance especially in the few moments we see him interviewed by the police. The police rule the case a murder and question Grace and her friends; Elena's husband is noted as a potential suspect, by the police and almost everyone who discusses the case. It feels like bad husbands, and maybe husbands in general won't escape this series without quite a bit of criticism. Grace tries to call Jonathan, who is supposedly at a conference in Cleveland, but finds that he has left his phone in a drawer at home. That's surely not normal. Unable to trace her husband's whereabouts, Grace becomes paranoid and rightly so. Where is he and what is he up to? He came home late the night of murder, upset apparently as a result of one of his patients dying, but that sadness quickly became horniness. Which again, surely isn't normal. What does Jonathan have to hide? An affair, or something more sinister? 

One thing about the titles: having Nicole Kidman sing the theme tune is fair enough, she's done musicals before, but with UK viewers at least I imagine we're all thinking of Dennis Waterman's character from Little Britain ("write the theme tune, sing the theme tune") and wondering if this is a bit of a vanity project. I'm glad they didn't use her music throughout;  Vivaldi's Winter from the Four Seasons was a much better choice to represent the tastes of the cultured elite. Very tense and dramatic too.

I know Big Little Lies was a phenomenon, but it wasn't really something I could be bothered with. My apologies to everyone who told me to watch it! It just didn't resonate with me, probably because all of the characters seemed despicable. In 2020 especially it seems almost impossible to worry about the lives of rich people, however tumultuous, even as entertainment. Little Fires Everywhere was much more rich and interesting to me, as it explored the themes of race and class so deftly, as well as socio-economic disparity. I hope that The Undoing can do the same and puncture this seemingly perfect life with some lessons for us all in New York realness. 

So while it's not as gripping as you might expect, and I don't imagine it will gain legions of fans like Big Little Lies, The Undoing isn't at all bad. It's just not exactly memorable.

Contributed by Sarah Kennedy 

                    The Undoing Continues Mondays on Sky Atlantic.


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