Australian Arts

The Undoing

14 November 2020

9:00 AM

14 November 2020

9:00 AM

It’s a strange prospect for strange times, the young violinist Freya Franzen on the stage of Melbourne’s Concert Hall playing Schubert to an empty auditorium. But what else can we expect in a time of plague? And the Melbourne virtual concert hall events, which will bring us the performance of Schubert’s Octet have been exceptionally successful.

Meanwhile, the Sydney Theatre Company has announced that Sam Worthington – best known as the hero ofJames Cameron’s Avatar series – will be on stage, come March, in their production of Appropriate, a turbulent American drama set in the Deep South which has echoes reaching back to Tennessee Williams. Apparently Worthington was in the 1999 Neil Armfield production of David Hare’s Oscar Wilde play The Judas Kiss at Belvoir, though I remember only the late Bille Brown and Mark Lee as Bosie.

I do remember Sam Worthington playing the title role in Geoffrey Wright’s gangland film of Macbeth and wishing he’d opted for something other than a suburban Australian accent.

It’s not a mistake you would be likely to catch Nicole Kidman making. In her now long career she has shown she can ape any accent as easily as she donned that fake nose in her Oscar winning performance as Virgina Woolf in The Hours.

One of the odd things about Nicole Kidman is that on a good day she’s a superlative actress even though she can make the oddest choices among roles both at the popular and the highbrow ends of the spectrum. But no one who remembers her in Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece To Die For where she looks like an actress to place with Maggie Smith – and with something of the same deadly command of the lightning transitions between comedy and drama – is likely to be dismissive of her. She’s very good in Big Little Lies derived from the novel of Australia’s Lianne Moriarty (although the setting has been Americanised) and she’s good in her startled, head-shaking mode in The Undoing.

The Undoing is written by the super hack David E. Kelley but it doffs its cap to the great Scandanavian crime series which have cut such a swathe through television in the last 15 years.

With The Eagle, The Killing, The Bridge, and a bit differently, Borgen where the focus was politics rather than murder, the Scandis have affected a revolution similar to the one Ingmar Bergman achieved in the 1950s when with the stroke of a wand he ensured that films like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal would make Sweden one of the great citadels of cinema.

In the case of The Undoing the Scandi influence is palpable in the brooding sense of portent with which the camera evokes Manhattan. And it is made all but explicit in the appearance of Sophie Gråbøl the star of The Killing, as a prosecuting attorney with a New York accent. But The Undoing sets itself up as such a thriller of such shocking reversals that HBO have allowed screeners of the first five episodes to be sent out but not the final one.

Nicole is married to Hugh Grant who plays a top oncologist who is having an affair with a young woman who is mysteriously murdered. Weirdly, though, the only other person there in the camera footage is Nicole. Meanwhile, Donald Sutherland in a performance of bristling authority plays Nicole’s billionaire Dad who loathes Hugh Grant and turns out to have a motive of his own. Then, to cap things off, so does the young son of Kidman and Grant brilliantly played by Noah Jupe.

The plotline is full of the just possible improbabilities Aristotle took a dim view of in his Poetics but the sense of murder as the fundamental raison d’etre of a stifling world is as overpowering as it is in Macbeth.

It is a great asset to see Hugh Grant –as fine a high comedian as they come – in very muted dramatic form, the perfect foil to Kidman’s wide-eyed gesticulation.

Grant gives a masterclass in underplaying in the face of the most melodramatic material in the world. The Undoing may be manifestly from the entertainment rather than the art basket but you can’t complain given the classiness of the elements that make it up. This is one to take in at a single gulp.

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