As a director, Susanne Bier has been busy muddying the images of stately Englishmen.
First, she cast Hugh Laurie as a cruel arms dealer in “The Night Manager.” Now she has Hugh Grant as a husband clinging to secrets – possibly murder – in “The Undoing,” at 9 p.m. Sundays on HBO.
“I just go for Hughs,” she joked. Such casting can be calculated … or whimsy. There’s “an element of intuitive sense,” she told the Television Critics Association in January. “There is a certain matchmaking fun about it.”
One match was already in place: Nicole Kidman (shown here with Grant) would star and David E. Kelley would produce and write the scripts, adapting a novel. That combination worked for “Big Little Lies,” which drew eight Emmys (including best mini-series and best actress, for Kidman) and eight more nominations.
This time, Kidman is Grace Fraser, a successful therapist, about to publish her first book. She seems to have a perfect life, but she’s been looking past her husband’s flaws.
“Choosing to un-know things is a fascinating part of human nature,” Kidman said. “We choose to see certain things, but also, everyone has secrets.”
Her husband Jonathan has plenty of them. Suddenly, there’s a violent death and he’s missing.
Jonathan isn’t necessarily a killer; ”there are about seven suspects who emerge,” said Grant, who plays him. But he’s clearly had a lot to cover up.
Is this really a Hugh Grant role? “I’ve done nothing else, really, for the last six years,” he said. “I’ve been consistently vile.”
That’s not the image that was planted early, often by writer Richard Curtis.
“That used to make him laugh,” Grant said, “that people thought (I) was that nice, bumbling Englishman. Because he knew exactly the reverse was true.”
Curtis wrote such roles for him in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Love, Actually,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.” Others even had him as the “Sense and Sensibility” vicar.
Grant did have his low point. In 1995, he was arrested and fined for oral sex with a prostitute in a public sex; that was just before the release of a film (“Nine Months”) that critics and Grant derided.
Even that un-vicar-like activity didn’t stop the sweet-Hugh films. Now, at 60. he’s far from them. He’s working for a Danish director who has a string of European awards.
“I had watched her films, particularly the Danish films,” Grant said. “And they’re right up my alley, because they’re very filmy films. You know, sort of art-European, Scandi, I love that stuff.”
And now Kelley has given them some complex characters to play.
“They all had to draw false narratives about who they were,” Kelley said, “who their partners were … giving rise to delusions that have a surprising tenacity. I mean, we live in a world, let’s face it, where the facts are the facts, but the story is better.”
Now Kidman’s character must sort through the lies told to her, and the ones she told herself.
– “The Undoing,” 9 p.m. Sundays, HBO.
– Opener, Oct. 25, reruns at 10 and 11:30 p.m., then daily – 6:45 p.m. Monday (Oct. 26); 10:20 p.m. Tuesday; 10:50 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday; 6:50 p.m. Friday; 5 and 9:35 p.m. Saturday
– Also, more reruns on HBO2.