The “Masterpiece” mini-series, arriving Sunday on PBS, tracks a crumbling marriage through some of the Continent’s most glorious scenery.
Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Barcelona. the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum, the Accademia, the Miro museum. Bistros, trattorias, canals, quaint hotels, cocktails, dazzling sunshine on the sparkling Mediterranean.
It sounds like the prepandemic holiday of a thousand fantasies, and indeed it is. In the four-part mini-series “Us,” premiering Sunday on PBS’s “Masterpiece,” Tom Hollander (“The Night Manager”) and Saskia Reeves (“Luther”) star as Douglas and Connie Petersen, a middle-aged married couple taking their grouchy teenage son, Albie (Tom Taylor), on a European “grand tour” before he leaves home to study photography at college.
There is just one small snag; Connie has told Douglas their marriage is over. And Douglas is determined to change her mind.
Adapted by the British writer David Nicholls, from his own Booker-nominated novel of the same name, and shot between July and October 2019, “Us” is a gentle but penetrating look at the passage of time and the way in which relationships harden into pattern. Like the book, the series moves between the present day and flashbacks that show how the 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 drugs on their first meeting, he says, “No thanks, I’ve had an indigestion tablet.”)
They have an opposites-attract relationship, eventually get married and have a baby girl, who dies a few days after birth. Later, they have Albie. But as their son prepares to leave home, Connie decides she should follow suit. “I want change,” she tells Douglas, who stares at her uncomprehendingly.
In a telephone interview, Nicholls said the inspiration for the novel came from the book tours he undertook while promoting his best-selling “One Day,” which was made into a film starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. “I didn’t really travel in Europe before my 30s, partly because I couldn’t afford it, but also because I felt intimidated,” Nicholls said. “Then, on book tour, I rushed through all those wonderful cities and really fell in love with them.”
“Us,” his next novel, “was a love letter to Europe,” he said, written with the belief that Brexit wouldn’t happen.
Of course, it ultimately did. But by the time the series aired on the BBC last September, the pandemic had supplanted the complications of Brexit, and Britain was still partly locked down. “Rather than a love letter to Europe,” Nicholls said ruefully, “the series became a love letter to leaving the house.”
Reviewers swooned over the maskless, hand-sanitizer-free vision of people jumping on and off trains, strolling through crowded plazas and making impulsive decisions. “Should they see the Mona Lisa?” wrote Rebecca Nicholson in The Guardian. “I was practically shouting at the screen that they should take their chance while they can because it won’t always be so easy.” The show, Ed Cumming wrote in The Independent, is a pre-lockdown vision of paradise. “The Louvre! What a charming concept.”
Art, in both the book and the series, is a stealthy means of change for Douglas, who goes from fretting about how to respond (“at least someone is having a worse holiday than us,” he says as they gaze at Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” in the Louvre), to a more emotionally sensitive approach as he and Connie wander around the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona, in the final episode.
The series offers sumptuous views of great art, as the family continues to play out its dysfunctional dynamics in some of Europe’s greatest museums and most picturesque public spaces. “It’s true escapism,” said Susanne Simpson, the executive producer of “Masterpiece.” “You are really getting that grand tour of Europe; the museums, the restaurants, the street life. It’s a joyous, bittersweet experience.”
Taylor said that making the show was nearly as transporting. “It was incredible to shoot in those galleries, and sometimes have them to yourself,” he said, noting that he, Reeves and Hollander spent time rehearsing intensively inside the British Museum to “work out the dynamics, and get the family chemistry right.” (Anyone who has had contact with a moody teenager is likely to find the dynamics startlingly accurate.)
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In some ways, Nicholls said, it was easier to create a balanced view of the family in the series than in the novel, which was written first-person from Douglas’s point-of-view. Hollander, whose company, Bandstand Productions, co-produced the series with Drama Republic, said that there were “a lot of Connie conversations,” in particular, in the months leading up to filming.
“In the book we see her through Douglas’s eyes because he is telling the story,” Hollander said in a phone interview. “Onscreen we wanted to make what was happening to her fully articulated.”
The result, Reeves said, is a more nuanced picture of the damage inflicted by Douglas’s tendency “to pin things down and analyze them.”
“I think his inability to see and appreciate a creative spirit — which Albie is, too — is what kills things for Connie,” she said. “It’s also the reason why she is determined to continue with the trip; the art is going to feed her, feed her confidence.”
The couple’s conflict, like the rest of the series, is sketched with a dexterous mix of comedy and pain.
“That’s David’s skill and what Tom is so good at — being totally truthful yet funny,” Reeves said. “I wanted to show that the breakdown of a relationship is shared; nobody is perfect, nobody is evil. There are all sorts of dysfunctions in their marriage that have as much to do with her as him.”
Other changes from the novel included a reduction in the overall number of destinations, a decision made for budgetary and logistical reasons. Nevertheless, the timetable was taxing, said Geoffrey Sax, who directed all the episodes.
“There were over 162 sets with four crews across five countries — England, France, Spain, Holland, Italy — and three different time frames,” he said. “Sometimes we would be shooting the 1990s in the morning, the present day at lunchtime and 10 years earlier in the afternoon.”
They also shot all the many train scenes in real time on real trains, Sax added, with few possibilities for retakes. “It was an economic decision, but also felt more immediate and truthful,” he said. “There was no time for agonizing.”
Although the series gives more of a voice to both Connie and Albie — whose personality emerges more fully in the second half of the series — the through-line remains Douglas’s tragicomic evolution as he contends with his deepest fear: that Connie, who he has always adored, will leave him. Hollander, one of Britain’s most versatile and compelling actors, said he was immediately drawn to the role, both as performer and producer.
“It’s a brilliant part because he is a character who has always tried to impose the things that have worked for him — an order-based, planned system — and has to realize and accept that his son, and wife, are different kinds of people,” he said. (“Although he ain’t James Bond, which is obviously the dream,” he added, deadpan.)
When the series was broadcast in Britain, Hollander remembered thinking “this is the holiday that no one has been able to go on.” Now, he said, “we are becoming dimly, possibly aware that maybe it won’t be like this again. It’s gone from being a substitute holiday to nostalgia about the recent past.”
But as Simpson pointed out, the series has a simple, yet uplifting message that “feels like something for us all to hold on to right now.” As Connie tells Douglas at one point, life will go on, “and it will be good.”