Review: 'Expats' raises the bar beyond the superficial gloss of watching the rich enjoying their privileges

There is so much right with "Expats."

January 26, 2024, 4:03 AM

There is so much right with "Expats," the six-part series now streaming on Amazon Prime, that its false notes don't snap you out of its relentlessly haunting spell. At least not entirely. Such is the talent of Beijing-born Lulu Wang, the series creator whose skill with family dynamics among immigrants found sublime expression in her Awkwafina-starring 2019 feature, "The Farewell."

Based on "The Expatriates," the 2016 novel by Janice Y. K. Lee, "Expats" takes its sweet time laying the groundwork for the shocking surprises it intends to spring, but once in, you'll be totally hooked. The resplendent "Big Little Lies" Emmy winner Nicole Kidman is utterly transfixing as Margaret, the Queen Bee among the elites of Hong Kong.

When we meet Margaret in the first episode she is busily arranging a 50th birthday bash for her husband Clarke Woo (Brian Tee), the man whose career she put ahead of her own job as a landscape architect in New York. For now, she lets her resentment simmer underneath.

Clarke (Brian Tee), Margaret (Nicole Kidman) in a scene from "Expats."
Amazon MGM Studios/Prime Video

There's something more devastating fueling Margaret's discontent. A year ago, her youngest son Gus (Connor James) went missing (or was he kidnapped?) in a crowded street market whose circumstances aren't fully detailed until episode 2. But the tension is palpable.

Margaret basically cedes the care of their daughter Daisy (Tiana Gowen) and older son Philip (Bodhi del Rosario) to the family's Filipino helper, Essie (the outstanding Ruby Ruiz), a live-in housekeeper beloved by the kids but resented by Margaret, who wonders why Philip has crafted a drawing of Gus holding hands with Jesus.

Margaret reaches out to her expat neighbor and bestie, the India-born Hilary (a smart, sassy and mysterious Sarayu Blue), who hasn't been the same since her unfaithful husband David (Jack Huston doing smarmy to perfection) revealed secrets implicating him in the disappearance of Gus. The plot doesn't just thicken, it boils over.

The party for Clarke is meant as a tentative return to normalcy. Good luck with that. At the celebration, Margaret loses it when she spots Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), the young Korean-American babysitter she entrusted with Gus, as a caterer. As you might guess, an explosion is not far off.

In the second episode, we encounter Margaret, Hilary, Mercy and David in the carefree days before tragedy. Pay careful attention and you'll see the seeds of what's to come. Interestingly, "Expats" is about privileged people who don't pay attention at all. Margaret and her friends barely notice the students of the Umbrella Movement protesting China's civil-rights abuses.

A scene from "Expats."
Amazon MGM Studios/Prime Video

In "Central," the extraordinary fifth episode that runs a feature-length 97 minutes, mostly in pouring rain, Wang pushes past the elites to focus on those who serve with little in return. On her day off, Essie is still caught up in the turmoil of her bickering employers. "You're family," Margaret tells Essie. But is she? Ruiz's expressive face is a map of a conflict not her own.

At other times, the women play games and gossip about the singing competition for which Hilary's housekeeper, Puri (a superb Amelyn Pardenilla), is auditioning. "You're a good friend, " Hilary tells Puri, who knows she is a servant beyond all else.

In these scenes, where Hong Kong itself becomes a character and a symbol of dislocation, "Expats" raises the bar beyond the superficial gloss of watching the rich enjoying their privileges. Suddenly, the drama is relatable and riveting, a sign of what this uneven series could have been if Wang followed her riskier instincts.