When it comes to TV shows starring Cate Blanchett, likely the main focus today will be the BBC Two arrival of the glossy limited series Mrs America, which dramatises the true story of the conservative backlash, led by Phyllis Schlafly to the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. But over on Netflix comes Stateless, a project seven years in the making for Blanchett and her co-creators Tony Ayres and Elise McCredie, and one that highlights another uncomfortable time in history in a very different way. Set in the dark heart of Australia’s immigration and asylum system, this tense, hard-hitting, and often surreal drama, exposes the dehumanisation of the convoluted process and the indefinite detention into which it would put those who landed on its shores.
The Handmaid’s Tale’s Yvonne Strahovski stars as Sofie, who acts as both a conduit into this world and into the bleak reality of serious mental illness. Putting a white woman at the centre of such a tale would be in rather poor taste, and scarcely believable, were this not based on a true story. In the mid-2000s, Cornelia Rau, a flight attendant who was born in Germany, but was an Australian permanent resident, was unlawfully detained for several months at an immigration detention facility. She had long suffered from mental illness, variously diagnosed with forms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Much like Cornelia’s own experiences, Sofie begins the series as a passionate member of an arts-focused “self-improvement” sect that charges their clients $400 a week and is led by a gaudy but charismatic couple (Blanchett and Dominic West). Her eye is on the “Trophy of Self-Improvement”, due to be handed out at a cheesy Eisteddfod for which Sofie is the lead dancer.
What really happened to Sofie before she was banished from the sect slowly emerges over the course of six episodes – as does the story of how she came to be in a rural detention centre populated by desperate men, women and children from war-torn countries. But we find her now with a German accent, claiming to be someone she’s not and begging to be deported “back” to Germany. Non-linear storytelling is a technique that is flogged to death these days – and it’s not always effective (BBC One’s The Luminaries being a recent case in point). But it’s used cleverly here, both to keep us viewers on our toes and to mirror Sofie’s confused, muddied mind.
As in Netflix’s original prison series, Orange is the New Black, this character who we follow into the facility (in OITNB’s case it’s middle-class woman Piper Chapman) is only a part of a wider tableau of characters and stories – that are also inspired by real events. Even more involving is the case of Ameer (an excellent Fayssal Bazzi), an Afghan refugee trying to escape the Taliban with his wife (Saajeda Samaa) and daughters (Soraya Heidari and Ilaha Rahemi) and desperate to make a new, safe life in Australia. But they are at the mercy of people smugglers and, as is so often the case, their repeated brushes with tragedy don’t end when they leave Asian shores.
The series isn’t subtle in its message, but nor does it need to be. Much like how we saw in BBC One’s Windrush drama Sitting in Limbo, it doesn’t take much to shine a light on the true inhumanity of how the people caught up in the system are treated. But it refrains from painting everyone in authority as either purely evil or a mindless drone.
The best intentions of Clare (Asher Keddie), newly promoted to running the centre and tasked with plugging the stream of negative headlines in the press, are soon threatened by pressures from above. There’s variety in the officers, too, from the woman (Rachel House) who’s a pure brute and enjoys the chance to let her aggression out on the detainees to the decent family man (Jai Courtney) who is torn between what he sees at the centre and desperately wanting to keep his job.
For Australian viewers (Stateless aired on Australia’s ABC earlier this year), the series serves as a both an enthralling thriller and an important chance to reflect on what has happened in their own country. For us in the UK, it’s both those things, as well as an educational portrayal of a side that we rarely see in a country with which we feel so familiar.