Stateless review: A thoughtful immigration drama
Ivan Radford | On 08, Jul 2020
“Let’s get away from it all,” sings Cate Blanchett near the start of Stateless, a new drama co-created by Cate Blanchett (and, along with Mrs America, the second of her two new dramas to premiere today on UK screens). She plays Pat, the co-leader of a pernicious cult that presents itself as a dancing academy – albeit one that costs several hundred dollars a week and preys on the insecurities of its members. But while the always-excellent Blanchett takes centre-stage in Mrs America, it’s to her credit that she generously steps to one side for this drama about immigration in modern Australia.
Instead, our protagonist is Sofie (Yvonne Strahovski), who is an eager victim of Pat’s cult, which she runs with her predatory husband, Gordon (a superb, and therefore horrific, Dominic West). But before we see her fall into their clutches, we first see her running through the desert – and the show’s non-linear structure slowly pieces together how she ended up there, and what exactly that has to do with an immigration detention centre in the middle of nowhere.
Yvonne Strahovski clearly relishes the chance to take on the complex character of Sofie, bringing both a vulnerability and a resilience to her survivor, who is haunted by memories of what happened to her in the cult even as she buries those memories to outwardly move on, effectively trying to become a new person to leave her old self behind. She moves between hysterical hallucinations and traumatised tears, smiling to charm her way past people when necessary; it’s a thoughtful, sensitive exploration of abuse and recovery.
That moving, gradual arc is giving the lion’s share of screen-time to do its complex subject matter the space it needs. But by doing so, co-creators Tony Ayres, Elise McCredie and Blanchett end up leaving the rest of Stateless’ ensemble drama feeling rather short-changed. The drama is ostensibly a four-hander that brings together disparate lives through the lens of immigration and the tensions that surround the contentious issue.
Fayssal Bazzi is fantastic as Ameer, an Afghan man who has fallen foul of a duplicitous people smuggler, leaving him separated from his family – questioned by officials about what happened to him, he finds himself torn between saving himself and jeopardising another detainee’s well-being with the truth. It’s a heartfelt depiction of the ordeal that immigrants can go through to find a better, new life, but it’s also the only detainee’s story given top billing; the other two strands involve Jai Courtney as Cam, a new guard at the centre who struggles to come to terms with the way the system works, and Clare (Asher Keddie), the relatively green manager, who is also grappling with the inhumane aspects of the system, while facing pressure from human rights monitors, her seniors and the media.
In between this quartet are a number of other players, such as Taika Waititi regular Rachel House as a guard with a mean streak, but while their moral dilemmas (or lack thereof) are interesting to watch, you wish we had more time to focus on the Tamil group who are mounting a protest. Over the eight well-paced episodes, the show does flesh out its supporting cast, but our attentions are primarily drawn back to Sofie, as her sister (a moving turn from Marta Dusseldorp) tries to track down where she’s gone.
There’s a rationale behind the weight given to Sofie’s story: it’s based on the true story of how an Australian citizen ended up at a detention centre. But compared to Orange Is the New Black, which used its real life protagonist as a window onto an increasingly diverse ensemble, Stateless feels like it doesn’t quite go far enough in that regard to realise its full potential. Nonetheless, it’s handsomely made, honestly conceived and sincerely performed. At a time when countries are coming to terms with their histories, past injustices and systemic prejudices and inequalities – after years of trying to get away from it all – writers Elise McCredie and Belinda Chayko have crafted a pertinent examination of a broken immigration system that wrongfully imprisons people. If this is the start of a more open conversation about migration, borders and human rights, it’s a welcome one.
Stateless is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.