The Undoing review: Eight alternative (and more suitable) titles for HBO's Nicole Kidman-Hugh Grant starrer
In The Undoing, the individual parts are greater than their sum.
The finale of The Undoing came and went this Monday (Disney + Hotstar), and its six-week run is now yet another object in the rearview mirror of the clusterfuck that has been 2020. It seems like just yesterday (or was it in fact, yesterday?) that I was griping about what a mixed bag most prestige TV offerings of the past several months have proven to be. It's entirely possible that I've been watching the wrong things, but give me a solid, "non prestige" production like The Alienist season 2 ('Angel of Darkness') with little-to-no hype about it, that spurns gimmicks and ambition for a well-told story and satisfying action, than the overblown gorgeous tripe that was, say, Ratched.
I started The Undoing with very high hopes, having thoroughly enjoyed the book it's based on — Jean Haff Korelitz's You Should Have Known, in which a New York-based clinical psychologist called Grace discovers that her ability for "reading" people has spectacularly failed when it comes to Jonathan, her husband of many years, and the prime suspect in a murder. By episode 2, it was evident that the HBO limited series — created by David E Kelley and directed by Susanne Brier — was going to take a different route than the books, becoming more of a conventional whodunit and courtroom drama, than a psychological thriller about a woman questioning her version of reality and rebuilding her life in the aftermath of a shock. I realised at this point that comparisons between source material and adaptation would have to be shunned.
In isolation then, how does The Undoing do?
It is undoubtedly well made. Visually, it is among the more arresting offerings to land on our screens this year — a showcase for NYC, if it needed one; for breathtaking shots of Grace framed in a window; the soft lights of her father Franklin's luxurious apartment; a lawyer's hands resting on a table, inches away from her client's manacled ones. And the performances are riveting — although what else would you expect from a cast that features Nicole Kidman (Grace), Donald Sutherland (Franklin), Hugh Grant (Jonathan), Noma Dumezweni (the lawyer, Hayley Fitzgerald), Noah Jupe (Grace and Jonathan's son, Henry); and Edgar Ramirez (who plays Joe Mendoza, the lead detective on the case)?
But in The Undoing, the individual parts are greater than their sum. Between intention and execution, something is lost, and the series fails to become what it was perhaps meant to: an indictment of elitism.
Obligatory warning: You have now entered the realm of spoilers.
Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis) is an artist; lovely and uninhibited and young. When she is found bludgeoned to death in her studio one morning by her son Miguel, Grace is among those questioned by the police. Miguel attends the same exclusive private school as Grace's son, Henry; Grace meets Elena while planning the school's annual fundraiser, followed by two other instances.
The lead detective on the case — Joe Mendoza — is especially interested in Grace; he seems to think that she is withholding information about Elena's murder. Grace is bewildered: what could she possibly know about a woman she met only three times and barely conversed with?
It emerges that unknown to Grace, she does have a deeper connection with Elena. Grace's loving husband Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist who once had Miguel in his care, has been having an affair with Elena, and fathered her infant daughter. Jonathan goes missing after Elena's death, with plenty of DNA on the scene to link him to the crime. When he is taken into police custody, Grace must contend not only with the trial — and the attendant media attention — but also with the hollowness of her "perfect" marriage: her husband had been cheating on her, had borrowed money from Franklin without Grace's knowledge, and been fired from his role at the hospital for misconduct. Grace's hesitant support of Jonathan is a vantage point for a dive into how women who "stand by" their publicly-disgraced men are perceived, from Hillary Clinton to Melania Trump.
Jonathan may be an adulterer and liar, but does that make him a murderer? Grace has to sift through her emotions, perceptions and the facts she's gleaned to come to an answer. To muddy the waters, The Undoing ensures that several major characters (including Elena's husband Fernando Alves, played by Ismael Cruz Cordova) act suspiciously, and have both motive and opportunity to commit the crime. This translates into several tense showdowns between Grace and Joe Mendoza; tearjerker filial confrontations for Grace, Jonathan, Henry and Franklin; classy courtroom setpieces for Hayley; and a few "mayyyybe he didn't do it" moments for the viewer. It culminates in a high-speed/high-stakes chase in the climax that is wholly forced.
With The Undoing wrapping up its season, here are my thoughts on alternative titles that the HBO series could have as easily had:
1. Grace Goes For A Walk
Grace walks. A lot. A significant portion of The Undoing's screen time is devoted to depicting Grace walking through New York at various times of day, clad in the most sumptuous selection of coats. Yes, Nicole Kidman's statuesque frame is highlighted very nicely when she's walking, but I'm not sure if that's reason enough to be shown quite so much of it.
Which also makes me wonder if it's a nudge-wink from the showrunners when Grace explains to Hayley why she's shown up on surveillance camera footage, captured about a block from the scene of the crime, around the estimated time of Elena's murder —
Grace: I was on one of my walks.
Hayley: One of your walks?
Grace: Yes. One of my walks. That's what I do. That's how I ground myself. I walk. Is that really so difficult to comprehend?
Haley: That you happened to ground yourself by walking within footsteps of your husband's bludgeoned-to-death lover?
2. Franklin Sits in Museums
As much as Grace likes to walk, her father Franklin likes to sit. Mostly in museums, before one particular painting, where everyone from his daughter to the cops can find him when needed. But he likes to sit in other places too: the chairs at home, the piano. The camera focuses on Franklin from various angles as he sits — in profile, a close up, panning around the back of his head to the front.
3. Elena Takes Off Her Clothes
I've groused previously about how much Elena is "the body" even when she's not yet the body in this murder mystery. I kept waiting through the six episodes for a glimpse of true grieving, understanding or empathy for Elena, beyond fleeting looks at Miguel's distress and Fernando's anger. Who is this woman who cared for her son through his cancer diagnosis? Who is she as an artist; what did she paint apart from obsessive portraits of Grace? Who was she in her studio, this space she kept separate from her home and family life? Why was she drawn to Jonathan? Obvious beauty and sensuality aside, what constitutes her allure? The Undoing spends little to no time on these questions. It does give us some close-ups of her smashed skull instead.
4. Henry Watches The News
When he isn't overhearing conversations between the adults and making poor judgement calls about interfering in an ongoing murder investigation, Henry spends his time watching the news. Whether at school or home, Henry always has his earphones plugged in, phone screen set to the latest in television news about the trial involving his father. Cue requests from Grace and Jonathan (and Franklin?) to "turn that damn thing off".
5. Joe Plays Confounding Cop
Okay, that's just me being alliterative for the heck of it, but in the second half of The Undoing, Joe Mendoza's actions can be very confusing. Does he suspect Grace of something? His repeated grilling of her indicates so. Does he pursue his suspicion in any meaningful way? None that's evident, beyond dropping by on Franklin (who's sitting in the museum), and making veiled threats when questioning Grace. And in court he's only too quick to admit that he never had anything on her to begin with: Evidence of her possible involvement was cancelled by evidence of her lack of involvement.
6. Sylvia Is Supportive
This is definitely just to keep up the alliterative aesthetic, which isn't even that much if an aesthetic to begin with. Grace, who we're told a couple of times is very reserved, has one close friend — Sylvia (Lily Rabe). When she isn't on the phone with Grace keeping her up-to-date with the latest gossip and news, Sylvia ferries her daughter to and from school and ballet class, works as a lawyer, and carries out such errands in the interest of justice as her best friend deems fit.
7. Jonathan Passes The Buck
It turns out that Jonathan will blame anything and anyone that might help him escape the consequences of his actions. One of the best things about The Undoing has been discovering how well Hugh Grant does creepy. The self-effacing/deprecating, hapless and utterly charming persona beloved of classic rom-coms is used to great effect in the initial portions of The Undoing. When he's in prison and later on trial, attempting to convince his wife and son (and lawyer/s) of his innocence, Grant as Jonathan channels all of his boyish aw-shucks manner into presenting himself as an unfortunate innocent. But when Grant drops the smiles and grimaces and outbursts of rage, trading them for a blank, stone faced look — that's when you sense Jonathan's extremely dangerous.
8. Hayley Fitzgerald Tells It Like It Is
When Jonathan is first taken into custody, he's represented by a public defender until Grace — in one of her conflicted moments of loyalty — gets the highly celebrated lawyer Hayley Fitzgerald on the case. Hayley is just as no-bullshit with Grace as Grace is with her clients. When a defensive Grace asks in one of their early meetings why Hayley thinks she's got something to hide, Hayley retorts: "Because it's what rich, entitled people do when threatened. They conceal the ugly truth to protect themselves, their family units, their place in society, their public image. And they think they can get away with it — because they're rich."
It's the kind of no-holds-barred truth-telling about class and privilege that should have underpinned all of The Undoing's storytelling. Alas, the show spends far more time eulogising a world it is probably meant to skewer.
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