Cate Blanchett takes a Crash-y approach to the issue of her homeland’s immigration policy with Stateless, a six-part Netflix series (premiering July 8) that she co-created, executive produced, and co-stars in as one half of a cult-ish couple. It’s a case of good intentions undone by hackneyed and creaky execution, although solid performances and a sense of palpable outrage at least keep it from totally crumbling under the weight of its leaden drama.
Stateless’ four intertwined narratives are inspired by real-life sagas, and its primary one is based on a particularly famous scandal: that of Cornelia Rau, a schizophrenic German citizen and permanent Australian resident who, in 2004-2005, was wrongly interned for 10 months in one of Australia’s many immigration detention centers. Here, her ordeal is fictionalized via the tale of Sofie Werner (Yvonne Strahovski), a flight attendant with cruelly unsupportive parents—who favor her sister Margot (Marta Dusseldorp)—and a crushing lack of self-esteem. She finds support, community and the promise of renewal at GOPA (Growing One’s Potential Achievement), a dance studio run by Gordon (Dominic West) and Pat (Blanchett) that operates as a brazen cult. Pat oversees rehearsals for a gala dance competition (the prize being the Trophy of Transformation), and Gordon coaches adherents in one-on-one therapy sessions in which they’re confronted about their greatest fears, and ordered to cast aside their friends, family and old lives (which hold them back from becoming their true selves) in order to achieve happiness and success.
Pat and Gordon are obviously creepy charlatans, and it’s not long before an incident ruins Sofie’s faith in the organization, rattling her already fragile self-confidence and sending her on a wacko odyssey that lands her in Barton Immigration Detention Center. Stateless goes out of its way to present Sofie as a woman who suffers as an unjustly incarcerated refugee after fleeing her dangerous home, thereby equating her plight with that of Ameer (Fayassal Bazzi), an Afghan father and husband who, along with his wife and two young daughters, strives to make his way to Australia. When a shady trafficker swindles him out of cash and passports, Ameer is separated from his clan and, following a mysterious criminal clash, winds up at Barton, where he’s reunited with his older daughter Mina (Soraya Heidari) and endeavors to receive an interview that will lead to permanent visas and, with them, the safety from persecution he so desperately craves.
Stateless’ paralleling of Sofie and Ameer (and the rest of Barton’s foreign-born refugees) is as clunky as it is overdone, which also goes for the series’ ungainly use of flashbacks. After a relatively straightforward opening installment, the series leaps forward to Sofie and Ameer’s arrival at Barton, and then spends subsequent episodes teasing the missing specifics about how, precisely, they found themselves in this predicament—a structural tack that’s marked by graceless editing and the gnawing realization that these shrouded-in-secrecy details aren’t shocking enough to warrant such treatment. Moreover, once they’re locked inside the same hellhole, Sofie and Barton’s plights are of a rather routine variety, with Ameer and Mina doing their best to act in a straight-and-narrow fashion lest they jeopardize their shot at liberation, and Sofie behaving increasingly unhinged—and, eventually, participating in a breakout that, in terms of suspense, falls considerably short of The Great Escape.
Sofie and Ameer’s stories aren’t enough to fully prop up Stateless, which is why the series also focuses on two additional protagonists that aim to give it a more comprehensive view of Australia’s detention system. Lured by his pals’ guarantees that it’ll result in more money and stability for his wife and three kids, Cam (Jai Courtney) reluctantly takes a job as a Barton guard. No sooner has he gotten acclimated to his new gig than nasty colleague Harriet (Rachel House) is implicating him in a violent detainee attack, thus putting him in an ethical quandary that’s almost as unpleasant as the majority of his duty. Cam technically works for contracted security firm KORVO, whose bigwig Brian (Darren Gilshenan) is paired with new facility general manager Clare (Asher Keddie), a hard-nosed bureaucrat convinced she can handle anything thrown her way. Spoiler alert: She can’t.
Things go from bad to worse to altogether wretched in Stateless, whose entangled threads all coalesce to argue that Australia’s immigration policy (and detention centers in general) are rancid prisons that traumatize and corrupt inmates and employees alike, especially since—by holding individuals indefinitely, with no rights or genuine means of attaining release—they invariably breed cultures of oppression and abuse. Unfortunately, that point is clear from the second episode, meaning there’s next to no surprise to these proceedings, just a protracted wait for circumstances to head south, and for characters to learn tragic lessons about honor, endurance and sacrifice. Far too often, one is three steps ahead of the show as it drags toward inevitable conflicts, twists and resolutions.
Strahovski embodies the unstable Sofie with conviction, providing an empathetic axis around which much of the action revolves, and Courtney delivers a nicely understated performance as the morally troubled Cam. Their turns, as well as that of Bazzi as the unfairly tormented Ameer, help compensate for the series’ dearth of excitement, albeit not enough to fully make up for Stateless’ mounting listlessness. While its critique is reasoned, there’s scant momentum to its plotting, which has the effect of neutering its righteous outrage. Everything is laced with Very Important Meaning, such that one soon feels as if they’re being preached to—an impression that’s made all the more frustrating by the persuasiveness of the show’s overarching censure.
As for Blanchett, she and West are largely relegated to Stateless’ first hour, hamming it up as ghoulish charlatans perpetrating a familiar brand of mind-control profiteering masquerading as self-help altruism. Decked out in a pastel tracksuit and, during GOPA’s wannabe-swanky festivities, a glittering red gown, Blanchett strikes a grotesquely unhinged pose, her Pat intent on manipulating her charges for personal profit while her co-conspirator husband perpetrates even greater monstrousness. She and West are the most fascinating figures found in this imported miniseries, which is why once they’re consigned to fleeting flashbacks, the endeavor as a whole slowly but surely loses its steam.