Expats, review: richly layered Hong Kong drama is held back by Nicole Kidman's oddness

A high-class soap opera about Hong Kong's most privileged: Brian Tee and Nicole Kidman in Expats
A high-class soap opera about Hong Kong's most privileged: Brian Tee and Nicole Kidman in Expats - Amazon Prime Video

Expats (Amazon Prime Video) is a very good drama starring Nicole Kidman. If only it didn’t star Nicole Kidman, it would be great. She plays a wealthy American living in Hong Kong with her husband and three children. During a trip to the night market, her little boy disappears while everyone’s attention is elsewhere. It is the stuff of nightmares.

Most dramas would turn this into a mystery thriller or a police procedural. Expats is so good because it doesn’t. It’s based on a novel (The Expatriates by Janice YK Lee) in which the story of Margaret, Kidman’s character, is only one strand. There are two other protagonists: Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a 20-something Korean-American graduate recently arrived from New York and living in a grotty apartment; and Hilary (Sarayu Blue), a glossy Indian-American who is one of Margaret’s neighbours on the Peak, Hong Kong’s most prestigious location.

We follow these intersecting stories over the course of six episodes. Yoo and Blue put in fine performances, along with Brian Tee as Margaret’s husband, Clarke. The weak link is Kidman. She looks and behaves like an alien. Her delivery is weird. Scenes in which she tries to convey grief or fear or hysteria are like an AI programme glitchily simulating human emotion. I have no idea what she’s done to her face, but it’s so distractingly odd that she’s simply the wrong casting these days to play an ordinary mortal.

Ji-young Yoo and Bonde Sham in Expats
Ji-young Yoo and Bonde Sham in Expats - Amazon Prime Video

Luckily, the drama is so rich that there is much else to get your teeth into. At one level, it’s a soap opera about the privileged and a window into Hong Kong expat life. But throughout it all, we are aware of the domestic workers – or “helpers” – who live in their homes and chauffeur them from one luxury address to another. “We know everything about these people, things their closest friends don’t even know,” says one helper. Margaret may declare that Essie, her helper (played by Ruby Ruiz), is “family”, but she doesn’t treat her as such, nor seems to be aware that Essie has a family back home in the Philippines whom she has not seen for years.

This power imbalance is explored in the feature-length fifth episode, which temporarily switches focus to the helpers. It also features the Umbrella Revolution – the series is set in 2014 – and shows young people going out to campaign for democracy.

The series, adapted and directed by Lulu Wang, plays out like the novel on which it is based: there are no neat conclusions, just overlapping stories and messy relationships, and a sense of melancholy. At its heart is Hong Kong itself, captured by cinematographer Anna Franquesa-Solano. On this evidence, I’d like to visit but I’d hate to live there.

On Amazon Prime Video now

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