Europe has never felt further away from Australia than it does right now. Even though the borders are open, in the uncertain soup of the pandemic (is this the beginning, middle or end?) international travel still remains a fantasy for many of us.
So the next best thing may be to watch a television show about people travelling around Europe – like Us, a four-part series streaming now on ABC’s iView. Released in 2020, and starring Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves, the BBC One comedy-drama series is based on the book of the same name by David Nicholls, who adapted his own novel for television.
The series starts with Connie Petersen (Reeves) sitting up in bed and announcing to her husband, Douglas (Hollander), “I think I want a divorce.” There’s no big reason – just the small things that grind people down over the years and the gloomy thought of time running out. Leave now, and there may be just enough time to start again, reasons Connie: “We’ve been through a lot and we’ve been happy – don’t you think our work is done?”
Douglas is taken by surprise (and anger, and sadness – he takes out his emotions by going to the local tip and ripping apart cardboard boxes). In his FitBit and polo shirt, he represents a certain type of middle-aged white man – a man who loves routine, who has woken up to a changing world and feels left behind. He is happy, in a melancholy way – he doesn’t want a divorce.
Complicating the stalemate, Douglas and Connie have booked one last family holiday – a big, expensive trip by rail across Europe. This is what hooked me into the series in the first place, the chance to see Europe from the confines of “Fortress Australia”.
But instead of being the next best thing to a trip to Europe, Us is a nightmare journey, where the viewer accompanies a married couple and their adult son Albie (Tom Taylor) as their family implodes. Even the happiest family has tense moments while travelling, but in Us, every meal, museum and conversation seems fraught with peril. Will the trip bring them closer together or will it be the nail in the coffin of their relationship? Can Douglas connect with Albie too, or are they condemned to drift politely away from each other (like so many fathers and sons) as the years progress?
Before the trip, in an effort to keep Connie, Douglas vows to change – and even draws up a master list of things he can work on. These include being more spontaneous and fun-loving like his artistically inclined wife and son.
But is it too late? As we move from the canals of Venice to the coffee houses of Amsterdam, Douglas’s most common refrain is wistful regret. “Maybe we should have been more spontaneous over the years – gone out rather than being too tired or too busy,” he says. Later: “It probably wouldn’t make a difference but I do regret not being more lighthearted.”
Even in such picturesque locations, it is painful to watch Douglas trying so hard and being rejected by his family. His son is frequently disgusted and embarrassed by him, and his wife seems to be continuously correcting him. “Douglas,” she just has to say, and across his face flies a flicker of shame and annoyance.
Hollander does “Sad Dad” really well. He’s uptight and annoying (I couldn’t stay married to him for a week, let alone decades) but flashbacks to the 1990s when the couple first met, flesh out the attraction between opposites, and what drew this unlikely match together in the first place.
Us is a grim postcard from the trenches of middle age and marriage, but it could also be read as a metaphor for Brexit. Do you keep going despite the problems and the pain, or do you throw it all away in the hope of an imagined, more perfect future?