Netflix UK TV review: Unbelievable
Helen Archer | On 22, Oct 2019Reading time: 4 mins
Even the most hardcore of true crime fans can be leery of dramatisations. Often, they are an excuse for sensationalism – the victim is generally a female in fear for her life or already dead, and the main focus becomes the search for the offender, as dogged cops play cat-and-mouse games with a coldly calculating monster. Netflix’s Unbelievable does include a detective duo, brought together in their search for justice, but it also turns the stereotypical formula on its head by moving away from the more ‘dramatic’ tropes in favour of dissecting the aftermath of rape from the perspective of the victims.
The eight-part drama is based on a Pulitzer-winning article from ProPublica (in collaboration with the Marshall Project), which documents the investigation into a serial rapist, and the way in which his first victim was first let down, then persecuted, by law enforcement. Kaitlyn Dever stars as Marie, the 18-year-old from Lynnwood, Washington, who, in 2008, was brutally raped in the apartment where she was living.
The first episode is the most graphic and gruelling in terms of witnessing the violent nature of the attack. Opening as the police arrive, the rape is shown in snatches of flashback, as Marie is repeatedly interviewed, and forced to go into excruciating detail about what was done to her – first, in an effort by police to try to understand what happened, later, to try to trip her up when they decide she is a fantasist. After her medical exam, a nurse cheerfully hands her a telephone number to call should she start feeling suicidal.
The second episode introduces us to a separate timeline, as we jump forward to 2011. Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Weaver) is called out to investigate a rape in Colorado, where she delicately yet expertly interviews the victim, Amber (Danielle Macdonald), prising as much information out of her as possible, gently swabbing her face for DNA samples – all the while being careful not to re-traumatise her.
The juxtaposition of such different approaches highlights just how badly Marie’s case was handled and is also indicative of the way the different investigations will move forward. In 2008, we witness the fallout from Marie’s attack, as she finds her life destroyed when police decide to prosecute her for filing false information. Her apartment – previously a safe haven, as she prepares herself for independent living after years in foster care – is in jeopardy, and her friends and support network falls away. Dever delivers an astounding performance as the inarticulate, confused, downtrodden Marie, left high-and-dry by a system which seems intent on punishing her.
Meanwhile, the investigation that evolves in the 2011 timeline, as Duvall teams up with Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), is thorough, rigorous, and sensitive to the varied victims, each one processing her sexual assault in different ways. The detectives soon realise, thanks initially to fluke, that they are investigating a single serial rapist, although he attacks in different jurisdictions in an attempt to stop law enforcement linking the crimes. What follows is a female-led investigation – nothing flashy, it’s more of a plodding procedural that relies on boxes of paperwork and the boring but necessary labour of pinning down details, brought to vivid life by the inestimable talents of Merritt and Collette.
The cop-buddy pairing also brings a certain lightness to proceedings, in what otherwise could be an extremely grim series. In the time-honoured tradition of such things, Duvall and Rasmussen’s clashing detective styles means their relationship starts off prickly, but they ultimately bond through a mutual respect and an urgent commitment to finding the perpetrator. Both, too, feel a deep anger and frustration at the violence against women, and while some of their dialogue can feel slightly as though we are being preached to by the writers, the actors bring such humanity to their roles that it never feels like we’re being spoon-fed.
You can imagine an alternate drama here – one in which the viewer is not sure whether Marie is telling the truth or not, until a final ‘reveal’. It is to their credit that the writers did not go down this route, and, from the outset, we are never in any doubt that Marie suffered the rape as described. The only thing we are unsure about is whether she will ever be believed, and vindicated.
The programme leaves us with lingering questions, though, of how many women are not ‘lucky’ enough to have unearthed a smoking gun, and how many Maries there are out there who have been traumatised not just by rape, but also by the way the ‘justice’ system handles their cases when they take the brave step to report them. There’s a passionate yet understated anger, too, present in the revelation that, had Marie’s case been investigated more thoroughly – had she been believed – it could have stopped the rapist in his tracks, and saved countless women from life-altering violence. As a commentary on a system that stacks the odds against the victim, Unbelievable is, sadly, all too believable – but as far as true crime dramatisations go, the programme elevates the genre to a hitherto unimaginable level of maturity.
Unbelievable is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.