This weekend, The Undoing premieres on HBO, six-part miniseries written and produced by David E. Kelly (Big Little Lies) and starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, Noah Jupe (Honey Boy; Ford v Ferrari), and the great Donald Sutherland. Based on the twisty Jean Hanff Korelitz novel You Should Have Known from 2014 (and directed by Susanne Bier, whose last project for television was 2016’s The Night Manager), The Undoing is a New York City-based drama about a man accused of a heinous crime; and central to its narrative tension—as in any story involving a drawn-out court case—is whether or not you believe he did it. Without giving too much away, the odds, at the outset, are overwhelmingly not in his favor. Under slightly different circumstances, six episodes would be five episodes too many for a premise like that; but here, the man in question is a somewhat wizened Hugh Grant, now 60.
Kelly and Bier are wagering that, after all these years, Grant still casts a spell—and hell, I think they’re absolutely right. But maybe I’m the wrong person to ask.
I grew up on old Hugh Grant. When Music and Lyrics came out in 2007, I was 12 and I saw it in theatres with my best friend, Cora. If I had to guess why that (very fine!) movie—directed by Marc Lawrence and co-starring Drew Barrymore and Haley Bennett—appealed to me then, I’d say that it came down to two things. First was the soundtrack: I loved a musical in middle school, even when the music was largely ersatz-’80s-pop. (Just a meaningless kiss, we knew it was wrong but we couldn’t resist …) Second was my powerful anglophilia, probably derived from watching Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a child. (Please see above.) Handsome, funny, pedigreed (Oxford!), but also persistently self-deprecating, Hugh Grant occurred to me as the archetypal Englishman. Eventually, I’d work my way back to the foundational texts—Maurice, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Nine Months, Notting Hill—but I didn’t need much goading to understand (and completely embrace) his whole thing, blinking, bumbling and all.
As the has-been pop idol Alex Fletcher (of the fictional band “Pop!”), Grant was pretty brilliantly cast, getting to be as clever and goofy and embarrassed by his own celebrity as he seemed in life. (“I’ve always been a reluctant actor,” Grant admitted to Vanity Fair last year.) By 2007, he’d been a bankable leading man for over a decade, and weathered both a highly publicized relationship (with Elizabeth Hurley, from 1987 to 2000) and a dicey prostitution scandal (with the sex worker Divine Brown in 1995). Grant had, in other words, been through it; he’d come to blows with the court of public opinion, and didn’t much like how it felt. So, as he slipped into middle age—Grant turned 40 in 2000—he returned, more often than not, to his sweet spot: playing the sometimes nervy, sometimes caddish romantic lead in a big-budget rom-com. He did this in the Bridget Jones movies; Love, Actually; and in Music and Lyrics and Did You Hear About the Morgans? While my affection grew (I was 15 when Morgans came out, and yes, I saw that in theatres, too), Grant’s persona didn’t quite do it for everyone, I learned. When one friend of mine claimed to find him “unwatchable,” I asked her why. “I think he is a sleazeball,” she said. Was that because of the prostitution thing? I pressed. “I had no idea that existed,” came her reply. Yet no one skewers Grant quite like Grant himself. “People saw all those romantic comedies where I was being a nice guy written by Richard Curtis, who is a very nice guy, and they used to think, ‘Oh, Hugh must be like that,’” he told The Hollywood Reporter’s actors roundtable last summer. “But I’m vile. Really.”
There subsequently came a period when he essentially stopped working; tied up with a massive phone-hacking exposé (the details of which are too labyrinthine to get into here) and his retreat into domesticity (between 2011 and 2018, he fathered five children by two different women and finally got married). Maybe it was the distance from Hollywood; maybe it was becoming a dad, or just getting older and less cowardly, but Grant’s recent re-entry to film (and first forays into television) reads differently. He’s added entirely different colors to his palette—such brightness, and such astonishing darkness. I haven’t seen Paddington 2 (2017) from start to finish, but in it Grant sings and dances to “The Rain on the Roof” from Follies, which is really all anyone needs to know. (He also loves that project unabashedly: “I genuinely believe it may be the best film I’ve ever been in,” he’s said.)
Then, a year later, the miniseries A Very English Scandal arrived on Amazon Prime. In turns funny, repugnant, and bitterly sad, Grant’s performance as Jeremy Thorpe—a Liberal MP who tried to have his male lover murdered in 1975—was something of a revelation. Hugh Grant, as it turned out, had much more to offer than floppy-haired, twinkly eyed familiarity; with his looks less of a focus, and his powers of persuasion sharpened to a fine point, he could frankly be rather scary. True to his crack about being “vile,” Grant insisted to IndieWire that more sinister parts feel closer to his natural register. In real life, he said, “I am much more dark and fucked up.”
The dark and fucked-up certainly abound in The Undoing. (Spoilers ahead.) As Variety rightly put it, Grant, playing disgraced pediatric oncologist Jonathan Fraser (husband to Kidman’s Grace and father to Jupe’s Henry) “is perfect casting as a man most can’t help but love, even when given proof that they really shouldn’t.” The show hangs its hat on Grant’s compulsive likability; on his capacity to convince a jury (and his family) that he didn’t commit a gruesome murder, despite the crime scene being, as his own lawyer describes it, “a shrine” to his DNA. In episode four, it’s funny to see that lawyer, Haley (Noma Dumezweni), pivot from finding Jonathan’s easy self-assurance appalling (“How much fucking charm do you think you have?” she asks him) to making it an asset. “You cast a spell,” she meditates. “You have done it with everyone you’ve ever met. With a face like that, I have a handsome, charismatic client, capable of mesmerizing. We will win this. We will get the jury to see in you what you see in you.” Grant’s winning smile effectively weaponized, the charisma that we’ve known and loved feels far more dangerous.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Hugh Grant’s late period. Let’s see what else the old so-and-so has up his sleeve.