Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) is a successful therapist, married to charming oncologist husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant) with a privately schooled, violin-playing son Henry (Noah Jupe). Yet her cocooned world is shattered when Jonathan goes AWOL on the night of a brutal murder within her circle.
At one point during The Undoing — episode three, to be precise — Nicole Kidman’s Grace Fraser has had enough. “I’m under ridiculous pressure right now and I’ve reached the point where I am not taking any shit from anyone!” The declaration gets to the heart of what should be the appeal of the Sky Atlantic mini-series, as promised by the title: watching a great film actor deliver a compelling, can’t-tear-your-eyes-away-meltdown. While The Undoing — adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel You Should Have Known by writer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Big Little Lies) and Danish director Susanne Bier (The Night Manager, Bird Box) — is an always watchable murder mystery, it never becomes completely gripping, neither a nuanced study of a wealthy family falling apart or a trashy melodrama where Nicole Kidman (who also exec produces) loses it over six episodes.
Kidman’s Grace lives a charmed uptown New York life (Best Overcoat In A Limited Series is a lock at next year’s Emmy’s) doling out tough but fair advice as a top psychotherapist, trading barbs across the breakfast bar with oncologist husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant) and helping raise funds for her son Henry (Stranger Things‘ Noah Jupe)’s private school. Very soon her cosseted world is going to be rocked to its foundations.
The characters themselves lack layers beyond those the plot needs them to have.
Out of this basic set-up, Kelley creates an enjoyable overall narrative architecture that delivers a big twist at the end of every episode, yet the meat of the drama toggles between family confrontations, posh-school playground tensions and not particularly interesting police interrogations (Edgar Ramírez’s cop is bland), amid the odd mini revelation. The show circles timely thematic material — in particular the insulating qualities of white privilege — but doesn’t have much new to add.
Still, Bier, working with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, bathes Grace’s entitled world in harsh daylight and coldly lit interiors, going for broke with big close-ups at key moments. She also draws strong performances, particularly from the ever-reliable Donald Sutherland as Grace’s stinking-rich father and Noma Dumezweni (Hermione in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child), who plays a prosecutor who specialises in muck-raking, using Amazon and Facebook to dish dirt on a jury (as ever, Kelley, a former lawyer, gives good legalese). Kidman and Grant do decent work, if stifled somewhat by trying not to suggest guilt or innocence, but the characters themselves lack layers beyond those the plot needs them to have. As a classy whodunnit The Undoing does the job, but it never reaches the next level of drama the talent suggests.
The Undoing is engaging rather than engrossing. Still, it’s artfully made, well played, and Kelley’s scheming will keep you guessing until the end.