Stateless review: Cate Blanchett is a menacing cult leader in Netflix’s intriguing new immigration drama

Although this show is set in the early Noughties, the issues it highlights about vulnerable groups are every bit as pressing today

Stateless trailer

There is a double dose of Cate Blanchett this week, which counts as two lights at the end of the tunnel. On the BBC she is appearing in Mrs America as the “anti-feminist”, Phyllis Schlafly, but first up is Stateless, a six-part series on which she executive produces as well as acts. It was made for Australian TV but snapped up by Netflix for the international market. Without Blanchett’s imprimatur it would probably have stayed down under, which would have been our loss. This is an intriguing, sympathetic and humane drama that also serves as a critical examination of the Australian immigration system.

Not that you’d work all this out at the start. Stateless initially looks like a different kind of series, keeping us guessing with different timeframes and characters who don’t seem like they’ll be caught up in an immigration nightmare. There are four main storylines, and for most of the first episode they are so disparate that it’s hard to tell how they’re going to join up. At the outset, we meet Sofie Werner (Yvonne Strahovski), an Australian flight attendant on her way home for Christmas with her family. She seems nervous, uncomfortable with her mother’s questions about whether she’s going to settle down and have babies like her older sister.

Next we see her at a strange dance club run by Gordon (Dominic West) and Pat (Blanchett), a perky but sinister duo in polo-necks and pastel tracksuits. Their promise of empowerment strikes a chord with the vulnerable Sofie, who is happy to pay the fees of $400 per week. We never quite know where we are, temporally, but a picture of Sofie starts to emerge. She is based on Cornelia Rau, a real-life German-Australian who was detained for 10 months in 2004.

Intertwined with this are the stories of Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi), an Afghan refugee who has made it with his wife and two daughters as far as Indonesia, where he is trying to get a boat across to Australia, and Cam (Jai Courtney), a young working-class Australian who takes a job at Barton Detention Centre, a fictionalised version of Australia’s notorious holding pens for asylum seekers and other stateless citizens. Like their counterparts in the UK, these centres are sources of ongoing controversy, a convenient way to keep difficult questions out of sight and mind.

Cam is not the only new employee. At the other end of the pay scale is Clare (Asher Keddie), an immigration official charged with keeping the centre out of the news while processing claims better. Her job forces her to make horrible decisions, but one of Stateless’s strengths is its refusal to take political sides. It would be easy for a drama like this to slip into self-righteousness. Instead, it shows the pressures the system puts on individuals all the way up. Open borders are politically unpalatable, but the system of turning back the boats, rather than admitting asylum seekers at all, is hardly preferable.

Elise McCredie and Belinda Chayko’s deft script jumps around between time and place without losing clarity, and continually reveals new information that adds depth to what we’ve already seen. Strahovski has most to carry in a part that asks her to be fragile, scheming, vivacious, terrified and broken, but the acting is generally impressive. West and Blanchett’s cult leaders let some humour in without losing their menace, and Courtney is convincing as the decent but credulous young guard.

Sofie’s arc might be based on a specific case, but they all feel like true stories. Although Stateless is set in the early Noughties, the issues it highlights are every bit as pressing today. The world’s temporary immobilisation by Covid has not alleviated the desperation of its most vulnerable people, or diminished their desire to make a better life for themselves.

Touch and water recur as motifs. The fictional centre is in a hot, arid landscape, where the detainees must be kept hydrated. For Ameer, the ocean is a threat and an opportunity, a last throw of the dice. For Sofie, it’s an escape, a way of temporarily entering a different state. For Cam, whose new salary means he can afford a swimming pool, it shows he is rising in the world. Touch, meanwhile, can be a tool of seduction, comfort or violence, a way for men to abuse a vulnerable woman, for desperate women to persuade men to help her, for a refugee to comfort his sick child, for a guard to beat an inmate.

Much of Stateless is about appearances; how a person, or a situation, can look one way but be another. Between language, family, religion, illness and poverty, there is more than one kind of detention centre, and sometimes those we can’t see are the hardest to escape.

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