CHALLENGING THE NOTION
n a year where captive audiences were even more reliant on the convenience of binge-watching, six-part limited series The Undoing became the perfect antidote for viewers around the world to escape their pandemic frustrations. The HBO original series, directed by Susanne Bier and starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, emerged as one of the most addictive linear TV hits of last year.
While it’s not easy to come up with a new plot for a whodunnit thriller, David E. Kelley’s script, based on the 2014 book You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, perfectly teases and builds episodic suspense that kept viewers coming back for more, crowning it the network’s first original series to grow consistently every week over the course of its season. The series’ finale hit 3 million viewers across all platforms when it aired November 29, becoming the most watched night of viewing for an HBO original series since the Season 2 finale of Kelley and Kidman’s other collaboration for the network, Big Little Lies, in 2019. It’s a huge feat and not an easy one to achieve against the backdrop of a very noisy landscape of content.
“I always say these things have a life of their own,” says Kidman. “It’s serendipity. You come together with the right group and something magical happens. There’s no recipe to it other than the desire to do good work and try to make something that you really believe in and that you’re passionate about and that you feel proud of.”
Kidman exec produces the series with Per Saari through Blossom Films alongside Kelley, Bier, Bruna Papandrea, Stephen Garrett and Celia Costas. The Aussie actor stars as Grace Fraser, a wealthy New York therapist who lives on the Upper East Side with her paediatric oncologist husband Jonathan, played by Grant.
On the surface, they appear to have it all – the happy marriage, a healthy sex life, a beautiful son Henry (Noah Jupe) and an elite social circle that would be the envy of many. Yet their world begins to completely unravel after Jonathan is accused of the violent murder of a young mother at Henry’s school. When it is revealed that Jonathan had been having a lengthy affair with this woman, the whodunnit storyline turns into an ultimately gripping tale about deception and blind reality, challenging viewers to examine the notion of truth.
“The show deals with an existential issue of ‘are we really capable of truly, profoundly knowing anyone else?’” says Bier.
Grant, who had always wanted to work with Bier - “she’s a proper filmmaker” - thinks the big draw for audiences lies in the thrill of doubting the foundations of our lives.
“We kind of pull the rug from under that,” he says. “It’s the story of a happy, privileged, successful family. Everything seems perfect and then, of course, somewhere under all of this, there is something very dark and very, very evil.”
Grant was keen to not only work with Kidman, Bier and Kelley but he also had the desire to play a role that strayed dramatically from the ones he played in the past.
“I thought how fascinating to be a guy who appears to be pretty marvellous - a good dad, a good husband, a guy who cures cancer in kids but yet he’s actually a brutal psychopath,” says Grant.
The continual thread of themes of deception, denial and the ties that bind certainly ramp up the suspense for viewers each week but it’s Bier’s direction combined with the stellar performances of the actors that bring a heightened paranoia, luring audiences back for more.
Bier, the first female helmer to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe and an Emmy, deftly crafts an intense and gripping thriller that pulls the viewer in and out. She encourages you to look at every detail but simultaneously calls on you to take yourself back and look at the wider picture. She crafts beautiful, intimate details against sumptuous, grand backdrops that hook her audience.
“Susanne is a brilliant, interesting and thoroughly original director,” says exec producer Celia Costas.
Kidman adds she had always wanted to work with Bier while Grant says Bier’s Danish films are “genius.”
On speaking of the challenges of his role of Jonathan, Grant says: “One of the difficulties in your job as an actor is to be true to your character. If you’re not, you’ll make mistakes and fall flat, so you have to be honest. But the problem is my character is being dishonest the whole time so there are moments when you are in this when you think that something would show on my face about my guilt or my anxiety in this moment, but it absolutely couldn’t show. So, the way we kind of conceived him was that he was such a perfect narcissistic psychopath.”
Kidman, who admits thrillers are “unbelievably hard to make” continues to be drawn to them. In this story, she was drawn to the magnitude constructed around Grace’s complex female character. Grace is, ironically, a therapist who specializes in difficult marriages and relationship problems. Indeed, with one couple who is working through infidelity with her, she tells them: “Part of the thrill of adultery is that it exists in the shadow of a primary relationship.”
Weaving this foreshadowing right into the beginning of the series, viewers cannot help but welcome the seed that is planted.
Kidman notes that a lot of the camerawork in the series is shot close-up, meaning performances had to be strong and convincing.
“A lot of it is shot right here [in your face] so there’s no faking anything,” she says. “It’s got to be felt because it’s all about Grace’s psychological journey.”
For Bier, these performances were so remarkable that at times she confesses to thinking she almost had “too much amazing material.”
“The entire cast would give remarkably different performances each week,” she recalls. “So, each scene could be either more dark or more light, more caring or more affectionate. There was this amazing library of different temperatures for every single moment in the series to pick from. It was exciting, calibrating it towards the end. For me, I was just like this heavy receiver of an amazing amount of gifts.”