‘Us’ offers marriage and a trip to Europe
Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Barcelona. the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum, the Accademia, the Miro Museum. Bistro, trattorias, canals, rustic hotels, cocktails, bright sunshine on the glittering Mediterranean.
It sounds like the prepandemic holiday of a thousand fantasies, and it is. Tom Hollander (âThe Night Managerâ) and Saskia Reeves (âLutherâ) play the roles of Douglas and Connie Petersen, a middle-aged couple, in the four-part miniseries âUsâ, which premieres on Sunday in âMasterpieceâ by PBS takes her grumpy teenage son Albie (Tom Taylor) on a “grand tour” of Europe before he leaves home to study photography in college.
There’s just one little catch; Connie told Douglas that their marriage was over. And Douglas is determined to change her mind.
Adapted by British writer David Nicholls from his Booker-nominated novel of the same name and filmed between July and October 2019, “Us” is a gentle but haunting look at the passage of time and the way relationships solidify patterns. Like the book, the series moves between the present and flashbacks showing how young Douglas (Iain De Caestecker) and Connie (Gina Bramhill) met. He is a biochemist, inhibited, orderly and risk averse. She is an artist, impulsive and fun-loving. (When she offers him medication at their first meeting, he says, “No thanks, I have a tablet for indigestion.”)
They have opposing relationships, eventually marry and have a baby girl who dies a few days after giving birth. Later they have Albie. But as her son prepares to leave the house, Connie decides that she should follow suit. “I would like changeâ, She tells Douglas, who stares at her blankly.
In a telephone interview, Nicholls said that the inspiration for the novel came from the book tours he took while promoting his bestseller âOne Day,â which was filmed with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. “I didn’t really travel Europe before I was 30, partly because I couldn’t afford it, but also because I felt intimidated,” said Nicholls. “Then I hurried through all of these wonderful cities on a book tour and I really fell in love with them.”
âUsâ, his next novel, âwas a love letter to Europe,â he said, convinced that Brexit would not happen.
Of course it worked out in the end. But by the time the series aired on the BBC last September, the pandemic had displaced the complications of Brexit and the UK was still partially banned. “Instead of a love letter to Europe,” said Nicholls ruefully, “the series became a love letter to leaving the house.”
Reviewers passed out at the maskless, hand sanitizer-free vision of people getting on and off trains, strolling across crowded squares, and making impulsive decisions. “Should you see the Mona Lisa?” Wrote Rebecca Nicholson in The Guardian. “I was practically yelling on the screen to take your chance while you can because it won’t always be that easy.” The show, wrote Ed Cumming in The Independent, is a vision of paradise before lockdown. “The Louvre! What a charming concept.”
Art, both in the book and in the series, is a secret means of change for Douglas, who no longer cares about how to react (âat least someone has a worse vacation than us,â he says while she GÃ©ricaults âThe Raft of Medusaâ at the Louvre), to a more emotionally sensitive approach as he and Connie wander through the Joan MirÃ³ Foundation in Barcelona in the final episode.
The series offers magnificent views of great art as the family indulges their dysfunctional dynamic in some of Europe’s largest museums and most picturesque public spaces. “It’s true escapism,” said Suzanne Simpson, executive producer on Masterpiece. âYou’re really getting this big tour of Europe; the museums, the restaurants, the street life. It’s a joyful, bittersweet experience. “
Taylor said doing the show was almost as moving. âIt was amazing to shoot in these galleries and sometimes have them to yourself,â he said, noting that he, Reeves and Hollander spent a lot of time rehearsing at the British Museum to âget the momentum and to fix the family chemistry. (Anyone who has had contact with a moody teenager will likely find the dynamic terrifyingly accurate.)
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In some ways, Nicholls said, it’s easier to get a balanced view of the family on the show than in the novel, which from Douglas’ perspective was written in the first person. Hollander, whose company Bandstand Productions co-produced the series with Drama Republic, said there had been “a lot of Connie conversations” in particular in the months leading up to filming.
“In the book we see her through Douglas’ eyes because he tells the story,” Hollander said in a telephone interview. “On screen, we wanted to fully articulate what happened to her.”
The result, Reeves says, is a more nuanced picture of the damage done by Douglas’ tendency to “pin things down and analyze”.
“I think his inability to see and appreciate a creative spirit – who is also Albie – is what, for Connie, kills things,” she said. âThat is why she is determined to continue the journey; art will nourish them, nourish their trust. “
The couple’s conflict, like the rest of the series, is outlined with a skilful mix of comedy and pain.
“That’s David’s ability and what Tom is so good at – being totally honest and yet funny,” Reeves said. âI wanted to show that the breakdown of a relationship is shared; nobody is perfect, nobody is evil. There are all sorts of disturbances in their marriage that have as much to do with her as they do with him. “
Other changes compared to the novel were a reduction in the total number of destinations, a decision for budgetary and logistical reasons. Still, the schedule is tough, said Geoffrey Sax, who directed all episodes.
“There were over 162 sets with four crews in five countries – England, France, Spain, Holland, Italy – and three different time frames,” he said. “Sometimes we shot the 90s in the morning, today at noon and 10 years earlier in the afternoon.”
They also filmed all the many train scenes in real time on real trains, Sax added, with few opportunities for reruns. “It was an economic decision, but it also felt more immediate and truthful,” he said. “There was no time for agony.”
Though the series gives greater voices to both Connie and Albie – whose personalities come to the fore in the second half of the series – the line throughout remains Douglas’ tragicomic development as he struggles with his deepest fear: that Connie he always does has adored, will leave him. One of the UK’s most versatile and compelling actors, Hollander said he was instantly drawn to the role as both a performer and a producer.
“It’s a brilliant role because he’s always tried to get the things that worked for him – a mission-based, planned system – and has to recognize and accept that his son and wife are different kinds of people,” he said (“Though he’s not James Bond, which is obviously the dream,” he added dryly.)
When the series aired in the UK, Hollander remembered thinking, “This is the holiday no one has been able to attend”. Now, he said, âwe are getting cloudy, perhaps realizing that it may not be the same again. It has gone from a replacement vacation to nostalgia for the recent past. “
But, as Simpson pointed out, the show has a simple but uplifting message that “feels like something we can all hold onto now.” As Connie Douglas says at one point, life will go on, “and it will be fine”.