New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Culture
  2. TV
24 January 2024

Nicole Kidman is a doll-like absence in Expats

This Amazon series appears to have been written by a visitor from outer space. Who could care for these cold, unfeeling characters?

By Rachel Cooke

In Expats, a drama based on a novel (The Expatriates) by Janice YK Lee, Nicole Kidman plays Margaret, an American in Hong Kong whose youngest child, Gus, has disappeared. This is a horrifying situation: an agony that accounts for her seemingly semi-catatonic state, if not precisely for her having secretly rented a shabby flat where she spends her days alternately scrubbing the floor and lying in a purple plastic bathtub. But still, there’s something odd here. Three episodes in and, far from feeling sorry for Margaret, I’ve started having evil fantasies in which Essie (Ruby Ruiz), her long-suffering cook-cum-nanny, does her weird mannequin of an employer a terrible mischief with a huge bowl of piping hot chow fun.

It could still happen, I guess. I read that Lulu Wang, the Chinese-American director who created Expats for Amazon Prime Video at Kidman’s irresistible behest, is proud of its extended fifth episode, in which attention switches from Margaret and her swanky associates to Hong Kong’s servant classes, and the Umbrella Protests of 2014, the year in which it’s set. But who’s going to stick with it until then? Who could possibly give a damn for these counterfeit people and their synthetic emotions? When has anyone in the history of the world ever behaved like this?

The trouble starts with Kidman and her alabaster smoothness. At first, you think (or hope) she’s merely bringing a Stepford Wives vibe to her role; as one of her neighbours notes at a party celebrating the 50th birthday of her husband, Clarke (Brian Tee), a woman in Margaret’s position has to be zombie-level medicated. Then you remember: this is Kidman’s range now.

The expression of deep feeling may be achieved only verbally and, if things are really heavy, with a little hand waving. Her child might be dead, or her milk might just have turned. Who knows? Her presence, these days, is a doll-like absence – especially in this part, for which her party hair is worn Lucy Worsley-style – and it makes us feel nothing but baffled and restless.

But the replicant numbness also stretches outwards. I’m sure Hong Kong’s rich white community can be ghastly; it’s hard to argue with Wang’s depiction of how such people treat their cooks and their cleaners, their drivers and those who bring tiny canapés to them on a tray. But would such grimness extend to the way they deal with someone whose child is missing, presumed dead? Margaret’s friend Hilary (Sayaru Blue), whose daily uniform comprises a series of taupe bandages, is openly irritated by her ongoing grief. Her estranged husband, David (Jack Huston), is so resentful of having been interviewed by the police following Gus’s disappearance that he has embarked on a sadomasochistic affair with Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), the Korean-American who was minding the child when he was taken.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Then there’s Margaret’s family. Clarke has taken to going to church on the quiet, which seems fair enough. But their other children, Philip and Daisy, manifest their trauma only through a relentless brattishness, while Clarke’s mother, far from weeping into her napkin over the loss of a beloved grandson, can only complain about the food at his party (she spits out a won ton she dislikes). Is it strange that Margaret threw a party at all? Yes, it is – though perhaps it was felt that Kidman needed to be seen in a backless evening gown at least once in the series. A Hollywood star may dress up (Oscar de la Renta) or down (Aileen Wuornos prison garb). Boring, in-between civvies, however, are a no-no.

The feeling grows that Expats’ screenplay has been written by a visitor from outer space, one who has seen both Dynasty and the films of Wong Kar-wai, but understands neither. One scene takes place in a shabby old noodle shop late at night, where Margaret and Hilary slurp soup together, their exhausted, permanently on-call driver asleep at the wheel of their limo outside. At first this moment seems just right: his slack jaw, their total obliviousness. But then Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” comes on the radio, and they dance to it, barefoot, and you wonder whether we’re in Kowloon, or on Mars.  

Amazon Prime Video

[See also: Why Truelove restored my faith in TV drama]

Content from our partners
We need an urgent review of UK pensions
The future of private credit
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors

Topics in this article : ,

This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars