The Undoing, the latest adaptation-collaboration from David E. Kelley and Nicole Kidman, began to unspool its mystery with its premiere, also titled “The Undoing.” The series, which is based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel, You Should Have Known, follows Grace and Jonathan Fraser, an affluent couple giving just about everyone on New York’s Upper East Side—and surrounding neighborhoods—a serious case of envy. Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, is a respected therapist whose marriage to her doctor husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant), is defined by mutual adoration. That blissful existence is shattered before the end of “The Undoing,” when Elena Alves (Matilda de Angelis), a new arrival to their gala-and-Pilates-filled world, is found murdered—and Jonathan vanishes.
Murder, coastal elites, and the presence of Nicole Kidman are enough to give Big Little Lies viewers some déjà vu. But Kelley and series director Susanne Bier are hoping to craft just as intriguing a limited series as that spiritual predecessor while offering up a unique exploration of entitlement and public life versus private life. Bier, whose work on The Night Manager earned her an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special, was eager to take ownership of the six-part adaptation, as well as help audiences see the “sadness” at the core of Hugh Grant’s comedic and more caddish performances.
For the In A Better World filmmaker, the central questions of The Undoing are “Who can you trust and can you trust yourself?” These same queries are at the heart of the book, but Bier tells The A.V. Club that Kelley’s “only used the books for the first two episodes, and then the rest is pretty much what he wanted to write.” They agree that these questions of trust are “essential and real for all of us in a way, particularly at this point in time where we all want to believe something and are sort of consciously, possibly just deceiving ourselves, just feels incredibly relevant and real just now.” As the series begins, Bier says, “Grace is deeply confused; she’s in shock and she is a bit all over the place. When you are in shock, whatever you intellectualize and whatever reasoning you have in your mind is not necessarily the full answer. She wants to find out what happened for herself, even if it might not be all that conscious at that point.”
Just as key to the drama is examining the role that privilege plays in not just Grace and Jonathan’s seemingly ideal marriage, but in how they’ve made their way in the world. As the series unfolds, we see once again that there is a different set of rules for the rich. Bier notes it’s “very crucial to address the fact that the closed system works different.” Fernando Alves (Ismael Cruz Córdova), is one of the characters who represents that inequity, according to the series director. “In the beginning we see him as someone who’s not entirely sympathetic, and we can’t understand why he’s kind of angry with Grace. But it’s because he’s so fed up with the world of privilege, which essentially protects you from being prosecuted when you’re supposed to be prosecuted. He feels rightly that the environment isn’t actually assisting because they don’t have to, and it’s deeply frustrating.”
“This is a very important and crucial part of the storytelling, that because you belong to a certain stratosphere of society, your chances of getting off a crime are much, much higher.”
The Undoing is another change of pace for Grant—another chance to dig into his “darker side,” as Bier puts it. The director recently told Vulture that the BAFTA-winning actor was her first choice to play Jonathan, a man committed to giving his loved ones the world (even if he has to make one up.) Bier says she was supposed to work with Grant 10 years ago: “We’d worked for a long time on a project and then nothing came of it.” But the experience helped her “appreciate what an insanely interesting and potentially surprising actor he is. I always loved everything he did.” Bier believes there’s an underlying sadness drives his work:
“I thought that the part [of Jonathan] was amazing because I think in Hugh Grant, there’s always been a sadness, which has been an engine and undercurrent in terms of his comedies. In this particular case, we’ve got an amazing opportunity to put the darker side of him, the sadness, on display and still maintain all the fun and charm and loveliness.”
Bier is just as impressed by her leading lady in The Undoing. Asked about working with Kidman, the director says, “She flies right to the top of the list of working with again. I mean, she’s phenomenal. She’s like a spirit in the old days, where you have these spiritual sessions where somebody became someone else. Nicole Kidman arrives in the morning as Nicole Kidman, you know, drinking a cup of tea. And then she goes into makeup and costume, and she comes back on set and she’s still drinking a cup of tea, but she now holds it in a different manner. Everything she does when she’s in character is different. It’s insanely impressive and interesting.”
For Bier, the pas de deux off screen is just as important as Kidman and Grant’s work on screen. She’s found working with Kelley to be very gratifying: “I think he’s an amazing collaborator; he’s very trusting and he’s very serious and he’s very sort of fun to work with.” Unlike production on Big Little Lies season two—which saw series director Andrea Arnold edged out by Kelley and effectively replaced by season-one director Jean-Marc Vallée—Bier didn’t struggle for creative control. The A.V. Club discussed that change in lineup with Bier, and whether she felt she was able to take ownership of The Undoing. Bier says she always felt trusted and supported. She and Kelley had “different roles to fulfill. This has been the best of two worlds. It’s an amazing gift for me to be able to go back to David and say, ‘What do you think about this?,’ and then have a conversation with him. I feel there’s been a lot of trust and a lot of excitement about doing this together.” Bier notes she “obviously can’t speak of a project I’ve got no knowledge about, but I can say from my point of view, it’s been a glorious collaboration.”