This four part adaptation of David Nicholls’ popular book opens with an extended middle of the night discussion between Connie and Douglas Peterson who have been married for nearly twenty five years. With their son Albie about to leave for Art College, she says she thinks they should separate, he is shocked by this declaration and herein begins an intriguing first episode which pulls at the tiny things that could make or break a marriage. Connie wants something different but she’s not sure what. “I want…change” she says, while Douglas seems content with what they have. It’s certainly an intriguing opening gambit for a series that appears as if it might tell a familiar tale. It does but not necessarily in the manner you’d expect. There’s been some criticism of the pace of the first two episodes (the whole series is on the iPlayer) but I promise you it is worth staying with as each episode has a tone of its own and the splendid cast develop a script that is filled with recognisable things.
Eventually the couple decide to fulfil an already booked European trek that will take them to several famous cities which Douglas has mapped out in the sort of neat schedule that underpins his character. He’s a scientis; logical, organised and not prone to spontaneity. Connie is the opposite; free spirited, artistic and open to new things. Just as you’re wondering how Douglas and Connie got together in the first place, we actually find out. The structure of the episode jumps back to their initial meetings and then back to the start of the holiday. What’s interesting is how similar the flashback characters are - Douglas is just as buttoned up and precise, the Connie of her youth is just as lively and unpredictable. So, you think, what has changed?
Douglas’ hope that things will work out is evident from this first scene. When Connie mentions a separation, he suggests a trial separation. “Except..not a trial,” she replies. Of course Douglas misinterprets all this as him having to change when what she has actually expressed is that she needs a change, a chance to be something other than a wife and a mother. Thus the stage is set for his sometimes desperate seeming attempts to – as he sees it - put things right. Being who he is this involves a list of changes he has to make. As the novel is told from Douglas’ point of view so the series leans more heavily on him than it does the other two. Initially it appears to suggest that Douglas is at fault but as details of their initial courtship and early life together are sketched in we realise that Connie’s restlessness is more of a positive thing for her than a negative action against her husband. This is a tricky dynamic to tackle as the drama seeks not to attribute blame to either parent. Albie’s thoughts on the matter remain elusive till episode 4- again we might assume he is no more than a typical moody teenager but this turns out not be the case.
Douglas’ attempts to, as he puts it, “stay in the moment” are constantly saboutaged by his own preference for timetables, lists and the paraphernalia of organisation. Watching Tom Hollander portraying these frustrations is tv gold as you know how Douglas really wants to react but in that very British way he keeps it all in. In one scene he almost bubbles over in silent annoyance as Albie’s new friend Kat (played with lively energy by Thaddea Graham) helps herself to pastries from the hotel buffet. The more she registers his reaction, the more she stuffs her pockets!
Douglas and Connie don’t exactly fall out and still seem to like each other; as their early courtship shows it is these differences that kept them together initially. Douglas is an excellent creation – like a child he goes off in a huff at one point after Albie makes him eat especially hot chilli. Looking at art he ponders about the difficulties of framing a picture while summing up the painting as “there’s a lot going on.” Nicholls has stacked some of the narrative against him by having Albie taking after Connie with an interest in art which Douglas doesn’t really understand. So they are distanced between fact and art and there is hardly any meaningful communication between father and son as he watches the latter chatting to Connie instead. At one point when Albie asks if they are going to do anything spontaneous on the holiday, Douglas replies; “I hadn’t planned to.”
Douglas can be fascinatingly infuriating. Just as he did in Paris, he chooses solitude in Amsterdam rather than join the others while Connie hangs out with Albie and friend Kat in a club. He has never learned that the neatness of the science he works on can never be replicated in real life. However just when things appear to be warming between the family but an incident at breakfast one morning in which Douglas sides against Albie even though the latter is standing up to some arrogant businessmen causes the son to disappear, leaving a note. Thus the episode turns on it’s head into Douglas’ search for Albie in Venice. This of course involves a methodical search mapped out and explained to fellow hotel guest Freja using sugar cubes!
In between, the flashbacks show Douglas and Connie’s wedding and early life together. It is possible that if Douglas was played by anyone other than Tom Hollander we might by now like him far less but the actor still manages to elicit sympathy for his character because he is sincere in his own awkward way but trapped by his own shortcomings.
It is in the third episode that the the use of the flashbacks is at its most effective as Douglas’ quest becomes increasingly fraught and unsuccessful. When he starts to unburden himself to Freja what we imagine might happen doesn’t really yet there is certainly a connection between them. These scenes- which include Douglas telling the tragic story of the loss of his first child Jane- provide some heartfelt moments yet there is a lightness to the way even this part of the story is told. Sofie Grabol is perfect casting as the cool Scandinavian divorcee Freja using very small looks and gestures that tell us a lot. She’s the sort of person you’d really like to meet on holiday. The developing friendship between Douglas and Freja is wonderfully light; chit chat, occasional smiles, a breath of fresh air for Douglas amidst his problems. Both seem lifted it only briefly by this diversion. That a new encounter brings out his best compared to his ratty behaviour around his own family is the clearest indication that despite his intentions it might be that his marriage really is at an end. There is a clearly an intended parallel with the scenes we have seen of his first meeting with Connie all those years ago.
Some of the viewer feedback from the show suggests the majority are rooting for Douglas by part 2 and seem dismissive of both Connie and Albie but I hope they watch all four episodes to observe a more balanced view. The point that I think David Nicholls wants to put across is that nobody is really `at fault` despite Douglas suggesting more than once he has failed or let people down. People who get together in their twenties will not always develop in tandem and may grow apart. Interestingly back home Connie also finds someone to tell her side of the story too in the form of one of Albie’s teachers. At this stage it is hard to say whether you think Douglas and Connie will end up together or not.
It’s great that the drama always includes some humour as well. Douglas’ travails are often of the slapstick type- in this episode he hops off a train to buy some food and of course the train leaves without him but with his bag! You know its going to happen and nobody does this sort of utter frustration as well as Tom Hollander. There are also some amusing scenes with Kat who is busking illegally again and both she and Douglas end up in a police station.
The fourth episode is a rich reward despite the fact that if you saw the plot written down you’d imagine everything turns far more serious. In a way it does but maintains the realistic tone and lightness of touch that has guided matters so far. It’s a conclusion that manages to offer an optimistic ending despite what happens drawing the family together emotionally in a way that alters Douglas’ view of matters.
This last episode includes three left turns which I won’t spoil here – though with at least one you’ll think “where are they going with this all of a sudden?” – but it proves to be key to that ending. We learn more about Albie who has been somewhat ghostly in terms of the plot till now and we find out just how wayward Douglas’ view of his son has actually been as Albie’s issues prove to be more than just regular teenage irritation. As for the ending, well, it is what you feel these characters really deserve even if some may find it a bit too convenient and simple. I’ve read that there are a few things missed out from the novel which has a slightly less conclusive ending than the one this serial offers.
The series drifts between drama and comedy, misunderstanding and affection. It approaches the generation gap and a failing marriage- both topics about which so much drama has already been written- with a freshness that makes you feel you’re watching something new. It’s easy to see why some viewers were apparently put off by a narrative that pays no lip service at all to any current burning issues and is firmly set in a white middle class environment. Yet I refuse to condemn a series I enjoyed because of this. After all we should watch any drama without prejudice wouldn’t you say? As for the accusation that it is too slow, well, as Douglas himself might observe, it’s just those people are too fast!
The big draw for me in watching this is that Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves are in it and they are every bit as good as you’d expect. He is a master at exasperation, frustration and she is brilliant at regret, optimism and forgiveness. She is great at expressing just how Connie wants to break free but isn’t sure of what she’ll leave behind and doesn’t regret her life. Their scenes together are just superb to watch and you really feel the weight of the character’s history. There’s a big bonus too in the first three episodes with the portrayals of the two twenty five years ago by Iain de Caestecker and Gina Bramhill which are so spot on you can really believe they are the same people. Tom Taylor as Albie has to be quiet and withdrawn for much of the drama but in part 4 he shows an easy subtlety that is refreshing for this sort of role.
Geoffrey Sax’s light touch direction makes the most of the beautiful cities we see; Venice swathed in hot Sun, Paris’ busy streets, bustling Barcelona. From the serene silence of art galleries to the heady noise of nightclubs we are right there with them and let’s face it this could be closest we’ll be able to get to such places for some time. The drama eschews current trends of naturalistic dialogue and hand held camerawork yet the hard work of the actors ensures the results never feel too poised or controlled.
There is possibility this would have worked better as a three parter and yet I’m sort of glad it didn’t try to speed the pace too much. After being bombarded with series that like to shock or break barriers there is something warm about Us. I suppose too that the series’ appeal also now lies in the easy manner in which the characters travel across Europe, a luxury we may never quite have again in real life. Though technically set in the present day a Europe without face masks and Brexit seems idyllic and idealistic from this vantage point. I’m not sure a second series would add enough to what is here but at the end I did feel I’d like to know what happens to these characters next and that is always a sign of a really good drama.