HBO’s “The Undoing” is an elegant if somewhat drowsy whodunit, a six-part miniseries starring Nicole Kidman as yet another beautiful woman whose ideal world comes crashing down around her, all because of an incident that is seemingly connected to the hothouse atmosphere at her son’s elite school, where, on the night of a fancy fundraiser, someone turns up dead.
The temptation, clearly, is to compare this series with HBO’s two hit seasons of “Big Little Lies”: Besides having Kidman as its star, “The Undoing” (premiering Sunday) is written by David E. Kelley, who is again adapting a novel (Jean Hanff Korelitz’s “You Should Have Known”) that takes us into the expansive dwellings and unhappy moods that define soul-searching misery in the upper tax brackets.
“The Undoing,” however, has a different and far more ambiguous tone, more suited to deconstructing its characters than building out a fully absorbing murder mystery. Directed by Susanne Bier (“Bird Box”), the series fixates on the contours of privilege and its potentially astonishing acts of deceit. On the surface it may look similar to “Big Little Lies,” but in the ways that count, it is darker, slower and not as captivating.
Kidman plays Grace Fraser, a successful Manhattan marriage counselor who seems to have an enviably sturdy marriage to Jonathan (Hugh Grant), a well-regarded oncologist at a children’s hospital. She’s particularly good at discerning her clients’ deepest wounds, and unsparing when telling them what they’ll have to do to fix their relationships. Her turn is coming, don’t worry.
While helping plan a fundraiser being held for the school where her adolescent son, Henry (Noah Jupe), is a student, Grace meets a young mother, Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis), who comes on a little strong and acts a bit weird around her. The other mothers on the committee (including Lily Rabe and Janel Moloney) think Elena is odd, and they make reference to the fact that her son, a fourth-grader, attends the school on scholarship. But Grace is intrigued by this free-spirited, beguiling woman who keeps showing up in her life — at her gym, for example, where Elena seems to flaunt her nudity in front of Grace, perhaps to get a rise out of her?
I feel obligated to keep spoilers to a minimum from this point on, other than to note that Elena is, obviously, “The Undoing’s” murder victim — bludgeoned to death in her art studio not long after she was seen leaving the fundraiser.
Still trying to comprehend the shocking news, Grace is at first frustrated — and soon frantic — that she can’t reach Jonathan on his phone, especially after two NYPD detectives (including Edgar Ramirez as Joe Mendoza) come to the Fraser home to ask questions. When Grace finally hears the alerts for her unanswered texts buzzing in the nightstand drawer and finds Jonathan’s phone there, it confirms her darkest suspicion, that her husband has fled.
From there, “The Undoing” undoes itself with some disappointingly rote attempts at prolonging its shaggy plot by identifying any number of suspects, including Grace herself.
Donning an array of gorgeous trench coats as the city’s breezes catch her strawberry-blond tendrils, Kidman is very much in her trademark zone here — the unsettled beauty who must navigate a murky maze of emotional ruin. She serves us the same masterful energy (low-wattage yet somehow searing) that has for decades inspired film scholars to write long tracts (and even entire books) that attempt to reconcile her talent with her luminosity. This may be the biggest difference between “Big Little Lies” and “The Undoing”: There is no Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern or Meryl Streep to distract us from the work at hand, which is to figure out where a new piece of the Nicole Kidman puzzle fits in.
In this one regard, for her loyal fans, “The Undoing” is worth a watch. Kidman is rivaled occasionally by the craggy yet sympathetically hangdog performance from Grant as the prime suspect. If you haven’t seen his recent works, Grant has aged interestingly into roles that all but obliterate the charming dandiness that initially propelled him to stardom in romantic comedies. Here, he’s far more interesting as a desperate, self-centered, possibly sociopathic antagonist. There are also moments of compelling work from the great Donald Sutherland, as Grace’s loyal (and financially loaded) father, Franklin, and Ismael Cruz Córdova, as Elena’s grieving husband, Fernando.
The murder case wends its way to trial while more revelations come to light. By the fifth episode (HBO provided all but the sixth and final episode for this review), the story feels fully spent and too thinly stretched. Beauty and mood can take things only so far.