A high-wattage cast and impeccable acting elevate “The Undoing” from a high-stakes but rather predictably-plotted murder-mystery to a juicy, highly watchable thriller. Nicole Kidman, riveting, and Hugh Grant, all roguish charm, star as Grace and Jonathan Fraser, a tony, Upper East Side couple who see their picture-perfect lives crash and burn when they are implicated in a grisly crime committed miles away in Spanish Harlem.
Based on a 2014 novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, adapted for the screen by David E. Kelley and directed by Danish-born Susanne Bier, the story takes place (and was filmed) well before Covid-19 entered the global lexicon. Good thing, because Grace has enough turbulence to deal with in her suddenly unrecognizable life. She is a couples’ therapist who quietly finds herself questioning her own relationships, both with her circle of smug, self-absorbed friends and, most disturbingly, with her husband, an eminent and beloved pediatric oncologist.
The couple’s 14-year old son Henry, surely the one most irreparably damaged by the chaos swirling around his family, is played by the talented child actor Noah Jupe. Henry attends an exclusive private school that offers scholarships to worthy, underprivileged students from across the city, but also makes sure the lower-class kids and their parents forever feel like outsiders.
The murder victim who sets the plot in motion is Elena Alvez (Matilda De Angelis), the sultry, dark-eyed mother of one of the scholarship students. Rather than give away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that the script is filled with twists and turns, lies and ambiguities. HBO showed critics the first five episodes, each of which ups the ante and raises the level of tension and suspense. The fifth episode ends on a particularly shocking note, and even film critics will have to wait to find out what it means and who the murderer is.
The supporting cast includes an appropriately imposing Donald Sutherland as Grace’s richer-than-God father; Lily Rabe as Grace’s best friend; Edgar Ramirez as Detective Joe Mendoza; and a regal Noma Durnezweni as the frosty, high-powered defense attorney who warns Grace that her expertise lies is winning acquittals, not mending broken lives.
The script veers into melodrama once or twice and contains familiar genre tropes, but it’s not easy to dream up something totally original these days. Occasionally a character’s reaction defies logic or strains credulity, but the actors keep viewers invested and director Bier reveals a steady hand and an ability to sustain tension without going overboard. Cinematographer Antony Dod Mantle makes New York City into a character, capturing both its beauty and its undercurrent of danger. Jonathan walks Henry to school through Central Park in sunshine and fresh snow, while shots of Grace’s compulsive, midnight walks – her attempt to “ground herself” when feeling anxious – instill extreme unease in viewers. Dappled sunlight filters through trees in the late afternoon, creating pools of light and darkness. One thing is clear: no matter what the outcome, the darkness will win out.