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Murder case destroys upper class lives of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant – HBO thriller drama by David E. Kelley is watchable, but conventionally on TV wish list

David E. Kelley's HBO thriller drama is watchable but conventional
Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant in “The Undoing”
TV criticism / review: "The Undoing": Murder case destroys upper class lives of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant / HBO

As a pay TV broadcaster for wealthy customers, does HBO now only produce series that are also set in an environment in which you can pay the subscription fee out of the postage box? The question must be allowed, after all, the broadcaster is diving after the success of “Big Little Lies” now with the miniseries “The Undoing” rejoins the world of American upper-class families, this time on the other side of the country, in New York City. And here, too, all kinds of abysses and dark secrets lurk beneath the perfect surface, culminating in a gruesome murder. So is the six-part just always the same?

At least HBO relies on continuity in front of and behind the camera: “Big Little Lies” author David E. Kelley is also responsible for the scripts for the new miniseries (based on the novel “You could have known it” by Jean Hanff Korelitz, German at Ullstein), at the same time Nicole Kidman took on a leading role again. This time she is even clearly at the center of the six episodes.

Your Grace Fraser initially leads a picture-book life as a psychotherapist and doctor’s wife, in which the only worry is that the new mother on the charity committee of the elite school is so carefree with her young body. As a pediatric oncologist, husband Mike (Hugh Grant) is fully committed to fighting the cancers of his little patients, but still manages to be a friendly father to son Henry (Noah Jupe) and an attentive partner to Grace. Their father Franklin (Donald Sutherland) is one of the wealthiest in town. And Grace herself, when she is not listening to the problems of her patients in her city practice, still finds enough leisure to organize charity evenings with other mothers for the benefit of financially disadvantaged students. One day the much younger (and poorer) Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis) also sits on this committee, who starts breastfeeding her crying baby in the middle of the meeting – which is quite upsetting to Grace and the other mothers.

Grace's father: Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland) in "The Undoing"
Grace’s father: Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland) in “The Undoing” Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved.

There are then several strange encounters with Elena, including a truly memorable one in the locker room of the fitness studio, where the younger woman poses naked in front of the seated Grace, the naked sex just in front of her face. No wonder Grace has erotic dreams about Elena that night. At this point in the opening sequence one still thinks that the series is once again boiling down to a story of sexual awakening and suppressed feelings in the upper class, and wonders why one is actually for that first world problems this should interest people. But then everything turns out very differently, because at the end of the episode Elena is dead, her head badly smashed with a hammer. And Mike, who allegedly traveled to a medical convention, is unreachable – Grace finds his cell phone in a drawer at home.

In episode two the mood changes completely and the upper-class drama turns into a mystery thriller: First, Grace tries to reach her husband with increasing fear. Then the detectives investigating the murder turn up at her house and reveal to her that she apparently did not know a lot about Mike – and that he is considered the main suspect, as his relationship with the victim went far beyond that of parents with children at the same school. The shocked Grace only has to fight for the remnants of the life that she has taken for granted up to now: the other mothers cut her, the director advises her not to pick up Henry anymore, and the press crowd besieged her house. In order to protect her son, she has no choice but to distance herself from her husband.

Symbolic picture: Grace (Nicole Kidman), the sophisticated city woman who seems to have everything.  But the press gathers in the background, the phone in hand, on which the husband cannot be reached.
Symbolic picture: Grace (Nicole Kidman), the sophisticated city woman who seems to have everything. But the press gathers in the background, the phone in hand, on which the husband cannot be reached. Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved.

This episode is easily the densest, most gripping, in which Kidman can best show off her acting skills. Unfortunately, the mood changes again afterwards, the series turns into a relatively conventional judicial drama with the start of the court hearing. Kelley ( “LA Law”, “Boston Legal”) written so often that it seems a bit too routine. Parallel to the search for the truth of who really killed poor cheerful Elena – Mike, her husband Fernando (Ismael Cruz Córdova) or someone completely different – the series continues to illuminate the psychosocial consequences of the scandal for the Frasers and with it the question of what will be left of the former model family in the end.

None of this is told in an unexciting manner, but it is quite unoriginal and sometimes too focused on effects. So each episode ends with a mean cliffhanger so that we as viewers stick to it. Mike’s characterization alternates between a loving father and an unscrupulous deceiver, with the well-aged Hugh Grant cleverly playing with his image as a charming heartthrob. Nicole Kidman manages to make you suffer with Grace; but what is really going on in her remains largely unclear – the actors are much more convincing than the script. One could also expect more from the production, as the Danish Oscar winner Susanne Bier ( “In a better world”) took over the direction of all episodes that already deal with “The Night Manager” also earned its merits on television. Her style here remains very conventional, however, ultimately interchangeable.

The final episode and thus the resolution of the murder case was not available to the press in advance. However, it remains to be feared that the whole thing will ultimately boil down to a stale moral statement. You always get the impression when the family life of Fernando and his son is shown, who can only afford the elite school because of a scholarship. Still, this family could have had a happy life if it hadn’t been for the Frasers, who, despite their affluence, seem somehow cold-blooded. But maybe Kelley will surprise us with another volte in the end. In his Amazon series He recently proved on “Goliath” that he can also write much crazier judicial thrillers. “The Undoing”, on the other hand, is exciting and entertaining, but also remains a bit hollow. Sometimes there isn’t too much hidden behind a shiny surface.

This text is based on viewing the first five episodes of “The Undoing”.

My rating: 3.5 / 5

The six-part miniseries “The Undoing” has been celebrating its world premiere on HBO in the USA since October 25, 2020. Sky Deutschland will premier in Germany and Austria from November 30, 2020.

Trailer for “The Undoing”



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