Is The Undoing properly great or just a run-of-mill thriller with a brilliant casting director?

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

7 November 2020

9:00 AM

The Undoing

Sky Atlantic, Mondays

Being Frank: The Frank Gardner Story

BBC2, Thursday

There must be some people somewhere who vaguely know their own spouses — but if so, they don’t tend to appear in domestic-based thrillers. Last week when Sky Atlantic’s The Undoingbegan, Jonathan and Grace Fraser (Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman) seemed to have the happiest of middle-aged marriages. They still laughed at each other’s jokes. They still kept each other fully informed about the kind of day they’d had at work: he as a kindly child oncologist, she as an unfailingly wise therapist. Not only did they still have sex, but when they did, it wasn’t always in bed.

True, they weren’t wholly without their problems. Their loving son Henry, for example, sometimes didn’t clean up after making smoothies. Nonetheless, even their equally rich and pampered peers on New York’s Upper East Side regarded Jonathan and Grace with obvious envy.

Two episodes on, and their gilded life has duly been obliging enough to fall apart. The trouble began when, to general consternation, a hot young working-class woman called Elena turned up among the moms at Henry’s $50K-a-year private school, her own son having got a scholarship. At one fundraising meeting, she breastfed her baby with a weird display of aggression. Later at the gym, she again flaunted her ample assets (© Mail Online) in Grace’s direction and asked the unnerving question: ‘Do I unnerve you?’ Most disruptive of all, she was then found bludgeoned to death.

At first, suspicion fell on Elena’s husband — but now it’s firmly on Grace’s. Which is why Kidman spent most of Monday’s second episode finding an impressive range of ways to look distressed. Then again, she had plenty to look distressed about. For one thing, it transpired that Jonathan hadn’t gone to an oncology conference in Cleveland, as claimed, on the day after Elena’s death. For another, the main reason he hadn’t is that he’s not an oncologist anymore, having been sacked three months previously for ‘inappropriate contact’ with a patient’s mother. For a third, the mother he’d been inappropriately contacting was Elena.

The Undoing is written by David E. Kelley, whose many TV hits include Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal and Big Little Lies, another tale of school moms featuring Nicole Kidman. The director is Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) who here specialises in rather eccentric close-ups, not least of one or other of Kidman’s eyeballs. Even so, what gives the programme its star quality are its stars. Grant possibly wasn’t at full stretch playing Jonathan in happier times — as a stage Englishman who satirises his own charm while still exuding bags of it. (But doesn’t he do it well?) After Jonathan’s suspiciously non-Cleveland absence, however, he returned looking convincingly desperate as he unavailingly protested his innocence of the murder to Grace. Kidman, for her part, is pretty much perfect as a woman ill-equipped to deal with any version of life that isn’t pretty much perfect.

These two are so good, in fact, that it’s not easy to tell whether The Undoingis properly great or just a run-of-the-mill thriller with a brilliant casting director. Either way, though, I can’t wait to find out what happens.

The courageous, often startlingly candid documentary Being Frank: The Frank Gardner Story opened with the BBC’s security correspondent in his wheelchair apologising for the strange gurgling noise. ‘That is uncontrollable,’ he said. ‘It is farting that comes through a hole in the side of my body.’ From there, he proved just as unsparing about other physical effects he’s suffered since being shot by an Al-Qaeda gunman in 2004. At one point, we saw him changing a colostomy bag; at another, inserting a catheter through his groin. Nonetheless, for most of the programme, it was the emotional and psychological impact he concentrated on, as he tried ‘to work out what I really feel about my disability’.

The answer, maybe not surprisingly, was that he felt several very different things. Given that the programme was part of a season to mark 25 years of the Disability Discrimination Act, there was possibly a BBC expectation that Gardner would accentuate the positive. And from time to time he did — especially in the big finish when, ‘after all these years’ mourning ‘the loss of the old me’, he finally realised he could accept the new one. ‘When all’s said and done,’ he concluded, ‘I’m really happy just being Frank.’

Yet, at the risk of sounding heartless, after all we’d heard and seen (including about the piercing grief Gardner continues to experience when he wakes from a dream of himself as able-bodied) this conclusion did feel a bit of a simplification — albeit an entirely understandable one. In the end, something he’d said earlier perhaps rang truer, if less comfortingly: ‘It makes bugger-all difference whether I’m okay with it or not. It is what it is.’

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