East Marion's shoreline gets its close-up by the end of the second episode of "The Undoing" (premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO), and as close-ups go, this is a particularly effective one:
Huge boulders — glacial "erratics" — are strewed on the beach. These hulking giants look as if they were tossed there yesterday. They're the perfect hiding place for someone who is up to no good, also a perfect portent of doom.
Beyond those stretches the water under a gray, autumn sky, or — to get poetical on you — there "gloom the dark broad seas …"
What would a murder mystery be without seas, the gloomier, darker and broader the better? "The Undoing's" star, Nicole Kidman, dazzling as always, stands on the beach and looks out over the Long Island Sound. Suddenly, a shape moves over by one of the boulders ….
And welcome to another film — or in this instance, six-part miniseries — by Susanne (pronounced Sue-ZAHN-ah) Bier, an acclaimed Danish director, and Oscar winner, who found her perfect sea on the far reaches of the North Fork. Some of the filming in 2019 took place at a house on Rocky Point Road (yes, the house is nice too) a few yards from the Sound. In a recent interview, Bier said "I had [envisioned] that sort of house, very isolated, with an unlimited view of the sea, and it just kept coming back to me. I'd never been to Long Island before but when I [finally] saw the picture of it I had no doubt it was the right place. I'm just very drawn to slightly melancholic settings."
The HBO production team had scouted Shelter Island for the scenes, but when the town board expressed reservations (mostly over a nighttime helicopter scene), "The Undoing" and Bier went elsewhere, and not too far elsewhere either. "I liked the North Fork more," she says, "because it had a feeling of endlessness."
Endlessness. Melancholy. The water. Each, often bound as one, seem to find their way into a Bier movie some way or another. "Birdbox" (2018) took place on a raging river. Her 2016 AMC adaptation of John le Carré's "The Night Manager" ended up at Lands' End in England. "In a Better World," her 2010 Oscar winner (for best foreign film), was set by the North Sea.
What is it about the sea? That's a question for poets as well as moviemakers. Walt Whitman, you'll recall, once looked out from Montauk to see "the inbound urge and urge of waves, seeking the shores forever."
"Forever" is the key word here and it applies to films as well — an infinity mirror that the protagonist looks out upon, her feelings reflected in that urge and urge of waves. In "The Undoing," Kidman's Grace Fraser mopes around those rocks, looks out to the water for wisdom but sees only emptiness, betrayal, murder, death …
"The Undoing" may not exactly be escapist entertainment for the pandemic-weary, but it does get around to those themes that Bier, 60, has explored elsewhere over a long career. Her family had fled Germany to Denmark ahead of the Nazis in the early '30s, then, along with nearly 8,000 other Danish Jews, were transported in a flotilla of boats across Öresund, the narrow strait separating Denmark from Sweden. After the war, the Biers returned from Sweden.
As such — or to no surprise — families are big themes in Bier films. They are often families under duress, ready to break, or shatter, and as she said in one profile a few years ago, she jumps into their story when "their sense of security cracks and the outside world knocks on the door."
The knock, so to speak, on Grace Fraser's door comes quickly. A successful and somewhat smug Manhattan therapist, her husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant, in only his second TV miniseries), is a pediatric oncologist. One day, he does not answer her texts. She quickly learns why: He's left his phone in their apartment.
Without getting into any details — and any would be spoilers — it's reasonably safe to say that "The Undoing" involves a brutal murder, a trial, and a few plot twists that are meant to throw viewers off. It's loosely based on Jean Hanff Korelitz's 2014 novel, "You Should Have Known," and was adapted by TV screenwriting star David E. Kelley specifically for Kidman. (Both Kelley and Kidman shared a triumph in their last HBO outing, "Big Little Lies.")
"I'd been talking with HBO about doing something and they sent me David's first draft which he'd written for Nicole," says Bier. "I just thought it was intriguing and oddly weird — it had this eerie undercurrent which was really interesting to me. It could have been more of a [psychological] drama or it could have been a thriller, but he was more keen to write it as a thriller and I was keen to direct one."
Bier was instrumental in bringing two other key members of the cast to the project. Noah Jupe, who plays the Frasers' tween son, Henry, had earlier appeared in "The Night Manager" ("An incredibly gifted boy," she says of the young English actor). She also prevailed on Grant.
At first, the "Four Weddings and a Funeral" superstar was reluctant but "I told him I would call him for the rest of his life if he didn't do it." She laughs at the recollection: "I think he was intrigued by David's wonderful writing and working with Nicole but, you know, he really doesn't want to work. He'd rather play golf."
"The Undoing" is a slight departure for Bier. Her specialty, in fact, is the psychological drama. Her themes are big ones — the disintegration of families, infidelity, personal morality, how the individual responds to violence, and the nature of violence. Children are hugely important in her work because they must learn of the world through eyes of innocence. What they learn — how they learn — ultimately makes that world.
"The Undoing" may be a conventional thriller but "the themes are always there," she says. "I feel that with whatever I've done, there has always been a moral reckoning [based] on how far are you prepared to go for someone. How, what and who can you trust and not trust? Those are the undercurrents that have always haunted me and they are prevalent in this piece as well."
What also haunts Bier's works are moods — heightened ones, where silence, sea and fading light build tension and infuse meaning. She recalled a crucial scene during the taping — one at that beach house in East Marion — which "had that wonderful low light that you can only find on the sea. It was late afternoon, dusk, and it was a long scene but we needed to shoot it in just 35 minutes" before the light was gone.
"I drove everyone crazy" but she got her scene and then, after it was over, those boulders faded into the darkness.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Grace Fraser (Nicole Kidman) is an esteemed Upper West Side therapist and her husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant), is an esteemed pediatric oncologist. They're just about perfect and so is their son, Henry (Noah Jupe). But after a terrible tragedy besets the tony private school which Henry attends, Grace gets a visit from a pair of NYPD detectives. One of them, Det. Joe Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) asks some unpleasant questions, hinting … at what? Grace's father, a plutocrat one-percenter named Franklin Reinhardt (Donald Sutherland), offers her use of his North Fork home to put a little space between her and the raging controversy back in the city.
Meanwhile, this 6-part adaptation of the Jean Hanff Korelitz novel, "She Should Have Known," was written by David E. Kelley ("The Practice") so you can be assured there will be courtroom scenes.
MY SAY In the early going at least, "The Undoing" is good because the actors (Kidman in particular) are good, and Susanne Bier's direction is good, and the Manhattan/North Fork setting is especially good. But spread over six episodes (the 6th wasn't made available for review), the story begins to thin out. Soon enough, you begin to forget about what's good and start to think about what's actually happening.
Not all that much really.
Episodes 3-through-5 are interminable in places but at least the first two comprise a solid psychological thriller in their own right, complete with some Hitchcockian grace notes and real forward momentum. A terrible crime has been committed, but by whom and why? Bier and Kelley build a case that the answers just might be important (and they just might be).
Yet caring about them is another thing altogether because it's so hard to actually care about Grace and Jonathan. These two are mostly all surface. To be sure, theirs is a pretty, highly polished surface, but what lies beneath — what secrets, drives, pathologies do they share? We get stray teases as opposed to deep-dive explorations. As a consequence, they're just another pair of highly attractive overachievers supremely confident in their ability to overachieve — and who happen to be caught up in a brutal murder case. (Oh that.)
In a word, they're dullsville.
BOTTOM LINE Handsome production, excellent Long Island locale, and the first two episodes are best. But after that, "The Undoing" takes its slow, sweet time. — VERNE GAY