How much are you prepared to love those around you and stay loyal to them if there is a chance they may have done despicable things? That is the question at the heart of The Undoing, HBO’s new limited series based on the novel You Should Have Known by author Jean Hanff Korelitz. The five-episode psychological thriller from acclaimed TV veteran David E. Kelley stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant as a married couple whose lives are torn apart following the murder of another parent from their son Henry’s (Noah Jupe) elite school.
Like all good mysteries, not all is as it seems in The Undoing’s inciting crime scene. Just as you think you might finally be starting to wrap your head around what possibly happened and exactly who did what, a new secret is revealed that leads you down an entirely different rabbit hole.
The series is told from the viewpoint of Kidman’s successful psychologist Grace Fraser as she is introduced to a strange newcomer in her life, the soon-to-be-murder-victim Elena Alvez (Matilda De Angelis), who engages with her in a serious of peculiar encounters. Following Elena’s death, Grace’s familial stability is shattered as she discovers that the connection between her family and this “stranger” is a lot closer than she had realised. What’s more, somebody in her family may have committed the heinous crime. As the police continue with their investigation, Grace now needs to figure out who to believe and hopefully uncover some of the harsh truths behind the crime for herself.
Using slow-moving, cleverly crafted character-building with investigative storytelling, secrets upon twists are revealed the further into the investigation Grace goes. Everyone is a suspect, and no one can be trusted. It’s a story trope that is fairly generic for this sort of mystery affair, but thankfully you never feel any form of déjà vu or repetitiveness.
This is thanks to a combination of some compelling drama as a result of creator/writer David E Kelley’s fantastic writing along with some incredible acting performances from Kidman, Grant and the gets-better-with-age-if-that’s-even-possible Donald Sutherland.
And it is really the acting which deserves high praise as the characters in The Undoing are all brought to life brilliantly in their incredible complexity. It’s a series that relies heavily on the nuances and subtleties of its characters to make sense of certain actions and thankfully the cast is more than up to the task. You will find yourselves straining to figure out where the truth lies as they pull off every part of the story so believably and effortlessly.
The Undoing is the kind of series that will likely be up for many awards next year based on just how exceptional the acting performances are and how well put together everything is. Kelly has been making premium TV dramas for over 30 years and he definitely knows how to bring out the best from his actors.
The story itself is well told and utterly captivating. While it starts off a little slow as it tries to introduce you to different characters, once you are thrust into the middle of the mystery you are pulled in many different directions, both in trying to decide who to believe and while getting emotionally connected to Kidman’s character’s predicament.
Much of what makes the journey so well-crafted is that besides for Kelley writing every episode, director Susanne Bier also helms the entire show (much like she did on the brilliant The Night Manager). As a result, every episode feels completely consistent in tone and design and part of the bigger story, with the actors feeding off that consistency in their powerhouse deliveries.
That’s not to say The Undoing is perfect and devoid of fault. Some characters make dumb decisions in their quest to prove their innocence and certain story paths might be explored a little too much without adding anything crucial to the overarching murder mystery. The pace is not too belaboured to make these parts difficult to watch though and serves up some misdirection to prevent you from perhaps seeing some of the truths that might have been in front of you all the time.
While the murder of Elena is the core of the story that will keep you gripped, much like the different levels of secrets in the many characters, this film is also incredibly layered. On top of unravelling a mystery, it also dives into the lives of the rich and how their privilege leads them to far different behaviours than the rest of us of plebs.
In this age of high-quality TV series, there are definitely more thought-provoking, action-oriented, or even more thrilling shows out there. There are few out right now though that will pull at both your heartstrings and your nerves so effectively as you are enraptured by this tale of murder mystery and family tragedy. And at less than half a dozen episodes it’s not unnecessarily drawn out, with each hour-long segment having only scant moments of boredom and building up to some rather tense and exciting climaxes. If you’ve ever watched HBO’s Big Little Lies (which is also created by Kelley and stars Kidman) then you have an idea of what to expect from this series, though despite some similarities, it does stand on its own in style, scope, and powerful drama.
This is no reinvention of the murder mystery genre, but with superbly-acted characters, twisting tension, and a story that keeps you hooked throughout, The Undoing is a killer example of it.
The Undoing will debut on Showmax on 30 November 2020.
Last Updated: November 27, 2020