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A Brooklyn lawyer shares his and his wife’s painful story in ‘The Undoing’

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A top New York attorney shares the heartbreaking story of his abusive relationship in a disconcerting new film, The Undoing, that’s playing at the New York Film Festival.

The film features Michael C. Hall and Maggie Gyllenhaal in a script by Michael Mitnick (whose 2007 film In the Heart of the Sea was adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s memoir of the same name). The movie feels intimate and intimate by turns, whether it’s Hall and Gyllenhaal simulating prolonged sex in his office or Gyllenhaal’s blunt description of their life of abuse, talking about getting “attacked from the outside, with the taunting of disappointment and not enough sex and diapers in the morning.”

It’s easy to read this as a narrative of controlled jealousy, but the film’s not there yet, and also not the substance of the story. One who savors this documentary is a steady reader of the award-winning magazine “Slate” as well as a junkie for imaginative journalists and artists. (If you have a hand in Slate and work at a photo studio, I invite you to join the Professionals community.)

The Undoing follows one week in the life of Robby, a passionate and confident attorney who, though young, is considered a man’s man. Then his father passes away, which casts a wrench on the relationship. Gyllenhaal plays Robby’s wife, Amy, a prominent television actress who is seen competing fiercely in the type of competition that fuels a Hollywood success story.

As Robby and Amy split up for good, the film takes on a more personal focus, showing viewers how many women, many of them famous, have lived with the cruelties of an unhealthy relationship. The film builds from narrative scenes into interviews with women (including Robby’s own mother) who have lived through hell.

The unappealing subject matter seems to be undermining the film’s sweetness. The life and relationships of a couple are depicted in fragments and as acts of retreat to a place of self-protectiveness. But the film is also an absorbing portrait of the kind of relationship that almost nobody has the courage to tell.

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