The Undoing, episode 1, review: Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman revel in murder most Manhattan

Gabriel Tate
·2 min read
Undone: Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman star as a wealthy New York couple caught in a scandal - HBO
Undone: Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman star as a wealthy New York couple caught in a scandal - HBO

Authors of Paddington Bear fan fiction may as well hang up their quills now, as they’re unlikely to come up with anything quite as luridly entertaining as The Undoing (Sky Atlantic), a six-part psychological thriller pairing his two big-screen adversaries. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant star as Grace and Jonathan Fraser, happily married parents of young Henry (Noah Jupe), celebrated in their chosen professions of psychotherapy and paediatric oncology, and regulars on the Manhattan society circuit.  

He was a genial misanthrope, she the moral conscience of the school’s smugly oblivious gossip mongers (American Horror Story’s Lily Rabe was the relishably appalling queen bee) for whom passive aggression came as easily as condescension and envy. The life of wealth, privilege and mahogany floors, which Grace was coming to find stifling, was then overturned by the murder of Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), a newcomer on Grace’s auction committee at her son’s private school.  

The young mother of a scholarship student from – gasp – Spanish Harlem, Elena flaunted her pulchritude and nursed her social isolation. Even before meeting her unhappy fate after the auction, Elena felt underwritten, a plot device of exotic allure, resented and patronised.

It was made clear early on that this was not her story. This was instead David E Kelley’s latest spin on the Big Little Lies formula, transposed to the East Coast and more interested in dismantling cossetted, unhappy marriages, performative sisterhoods formed at the school gates, and men hiding moral emptiness under sleek surfaces.  

Speaking of which: Jonathan left the auction soon after Elena, ostensibly to deal with a patient, then returned home late and in tears. Could he have been involved? The Undoing is based on a bestseller called You Should Have Known, which may have offered a clue as the police investigation began.  

The whole thing was delicious fun but wafer thin, as superficial as the cheer for diversity at the auction and kept afloat largely by Kidman’s typically poised and enigmatic turn. Director Susanne Bier and her director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle (long-time foil for Danny Boyle) worked hard and to good effect in casting New York as a chilly, Gothic metropolis with as little interest in the huddled masses as Kelley and his characters have.

While Jonathan displayed plenty of familiar Grant tics, darker and more dangerous depths were hinted at. Despite shades of Roger Moore attempting gravitas, this was Grant’s most serious piece of acting for decades (even A Very English Scandal had a larkiness to it) and he acquitted himself well. Whether the story can sustain five more hours may depend on his ability to dig deeper to find the potential sociopath beneath the familiar charming rogue.