Biweekly Binge: The Undoing - A not half-bad introspection of class
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it is The Undoing, currently streaming on Hotstar
Hugh Grant is an inspired casting choice for the role of Jonathan Fraser in the HBO mini-series The Undoing (streaming on Hotstar). Grant occupies that cusp in an older male actor's life where there is palpable sadness at the number of years next to his name, the audience (of a certain age, of course) have fond remembrance for his younger, heartthrob avatar while he continues to look and be such a charmer that to look past him would be a daring act of neglect. In the David E Kelly-created and Susanne Bier-directed The Undoing, he plays a paediatric oncologist with a little family in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the family too looking and being the part. His wife, Nicole Kidman's Grace Fraser is a clinical psychologist and son Henry (Noah Jupe) goes to the best school the moneyed can buy.
We meet Grace as a mother with an East Coast counterpart for Kidman's club in Big Little Lies, the mothers organising a fundraiser auction for the private school. Jonathan is easy and boyish with his son, discomfited by the idea of a black-tie event while also being able to transform like a chameleon into the harmless inveigler at parties. We hear comments about him from other women and a rhetorical "How does he do it?" An incessant charmer that even his otherwise boorish father-in-law (Donald Sutherland) complements him, and the saviour of lives. That they are lives of children is more gravy. And then Grace's life rams into a wall when one of the younger mothers (Matilda De Angelis as Elena Alves) in the school, way below the social class of the Frasers and the odd minority in the elite white community of Rearden School, is found murdered and Jonathan becomes the lead suspect.
The Undoing goes about doing the job in its title. Grace's life comes undone detail by detail. The charge of monstrous murder comes undone as we learn new truths about the lives of the Frasers. Along with us, Grace learns a lot about her own husband and partner of almost twenty years, that first comes as a shocker. As if the trauma isn't enough, she learns new information about her own parents and their marriage. Grace knows little of her own husband even though he continues to insist that he was not the one who wielded that sculptor's hammer. But then, it makes us wonder. Can we ever claim to know a person as intimately as we think we do? Have we seen a person in every situation out of a million different situations or know enough to predict how they'd react to each one of those?
The Undoing might put an ultra-privileged white family in crisis and that can be difficult to empathise with. But, it also puts a circle around the white man who is hallmarked in society as the ideal, the good human being who is perfect in one job, which is understood as the qualification for perfection in every other sphere of life.
Elena was an artist and Donald Sutherland's Franklin Reinhardt spends long hours in front of art in the museum. He meets Grace there; the investigators too meet him there. The artist is gone but the privileged who live in Manhattan penthouses can buy museum-worthy art and the most expensive defence attorney. The defence attorney is African American, and this equation adds a little complexity to The Undoing but hardly achieves anything with it. Otherwise, the playbook is similar - the defence tries to show that the case is not as open and shut as everyone claims it to be and that alone is enough to cast doubts in the public and media's heads. It establishes that something as simple as that can sway attention away from Jonathan the accused to Jonathan the victim. His position in society and the family's position in the glitterati becomes the currency with which Jonathan, with a murky past but the right words in every situation, can buy himself out of this maelstrom.
The Undoing, apart from great turns from Kidman and Grant, also has a carefully constructed atmosphere. The palatial rooms and dimly-lit courtrooms and the aerial shots of Manhattan along with the overcast, cold insides of Central Park go a long way into making the mini-series something of an unsentimental, chilling portrait of what hierarchy of class can make possible. It's not consistently alluring by any measure, but the filmmaking makes up for the uncaring attitude that it can inspire.