I Am... Nicola review: A claustrophobic, cautionary tale about domestic abuse

Vicky McClure gives an understated, nuanced portrayal of a woman trapped in a coercive relationship in Channel 4’s new improvised anthology drama

Ellie Harrison
Tuesday 23 July 2019 22:38
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I Am - trailer

“This isn’t what love should feel like, Adam. This isn’t it,” says Vicky McClure in a line that perfectly sums up I Am... Nicola, a suffocating study of controlling behaviour, guilt-tripping and manipulation.

Channel 4’s new anthology drama, I Am, comprises three separate stories, each bearing the name of its female lead. It comes from Bafta-winning writer and director Dominic Savage (When I Was 12), who asked the cast to improvise and mine their own personal experiences when playing their parts.

While McClure was brilliantly fierce as skinhead Lol in the This is England saga – a role that won her a Bafta in 2011 – in Line of Duty, in which she plays anti-corruption police officer Kate, she was never really stretched. Here, as the eponymous woman trapped in a coercive relationship, she is superb, her face an understated canvas of bewilderment and pain.

At the beginning of the instalment, Nicola is introduced as a suburban hairdresser who yearns for a higher purpose in life, and is embarrassed to never have anything to say to her clients because all she does is work and come home to cook and clean for Adam, her controlling boyfriend, whose malice is portrayed with deft subtlety by Perry Fitzpatrick.

When Nicola tells Adam she is unhappy, he misses the point entirely and reminds her she’s “got a good life – our own space, two cars”. She later apologises, telling him she’s “really sorry for just… for being me”. In response, Adam gaslights Nicola, telling her she’s “very sensitive” and “silly” and tends to “get all het up” about things.

This is the first warning sign of what builds into a disturbing cycle of controlling behaviour: Adam doesn’t want Nicola to go out with her girlfriends, Adam tells Nicola her gym leggings are “inappropriate”, Adam thinks a happily engaged friend of theirs is “perving” on Nicola, Adam stalks Nicola around the house – and in the most unsettling scene of all, Adam suggests to Nicola that he will take his own life if she leaves him, even for one night.

I Am… Nicola paints a sobering picture of what many people are experiencing in daily life. In the year leading up to March 2018, a total of 9,052 cases of coercive control were recorded in England. This form of domestic abuse was only established as a criminal offence in 2015, and the majority of cases are dropped without charge.

For all this, the drama doesn’t feel didactic and instead fully immerses you into Nicola’s world. The intense performances are reminiscent of those in Shane Meadows recent drama The Virtues, while the camera work is in your face, creating a claustrophobic and unsettling atmosphere.

Coming close to achieving in 45 minutes what The Archers did over 18 months with Helen’s famous coercive relationship storyline, Savage’s drama presents us with the seemingly harmless, small behaviours that, while not necessarily problematic on their own, add up to demonstrate a case of coercive control with devastating realism. I came away from it thinking of all the victims of domestic abuse that have been unable to escape a similar misery.

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