The six-part series, co-created by Cate Blanchett, is inspired by the true story of a mentally ill woman who was unlawfully imprisoned in an Australian immigrant detention center.

By Kristen Baldwin
July 02, 2020 at 08:33 AM EDT
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BEN KING/NETFLIX

Fifteen years ago, a mentally ill white woman named Cornelia Rau was found languishing in an Australian immigration detention center despite being a permanent resident. Stateless — the harrowing miniseries created by Cate Blanchett, Tony Ayres, and Elise McCredie — takes inspiration from Rau’s ordeal to create a riveting, painfully relevant saga of human desperation and excruciating bureaucratic failures.

Feeling diminished by her parents and limited by her work, Sofie Werner (Yvonne Strahovski) quits her flight attendant gig and takes up with a culty self-help group called GOPA, run by the charismatic husband-and-wife team of Gordon (a menacing Dominic West) and Pat (Blanchett, in her second extraordinary TV wig this year). But when Gordon humiliates her in public, Sofie suffers a breakdown and goes on the run — only to wind up, weeks later, in immigration custody.

Rau’s ordeal sparked public outrage — how did a white Australian wind up imprisoned with “unlawful non-citizens”? — and a government inquiry into the country’s disastrous immigration system. Sofie, too, is an anomaly at Barton detention center, which teems with brown and black refugees from Iraq, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, more. Fayssal Bazzi (Mr Inbetween) is heartbreaking as Ameer, an Afghani refugee who is forced to make an unbearable sacrifice in order to secure a protection visa for his young daughter (Soraya Heidari). Meanwhile, immigration boss Clare (Asher Keddie) engages in an endless finger-pointing battle with Barton general manager Brian (Darren Gilshenan), as the two agencies seek to shift blame for the latest detainee disaster. Clare and Brian may be “in charge” of Barton, but Stateless doesn’t present them as heartless tyrants or incompetent buffoons. Instead, they’re just two more overtaxed public servants facing tremendous pressure from “the top” to keep Barton and its inhabitants out of the headlines.

Viewers have another surrogate in Cam Samford (Jai Courtney), a young father who reluctantly takes a job as a guard at Barton to provide for his growing family. It’s clear from the moment Cam drives through the gates where his story is going: He soon finds himself struggling to hold on to his compassion, as the daily atrocities at Barton begin to grind down his soul. Still, Courtney makes Cam’s inevitable descent into brutality feel wrenching and authentic.

Strahovski, who’s spent the past three years hemmed into Serena Joy’s circular character arc on The Handmaid’s Tale, gives a beautifully nuanced performance as Sofie. Stateless tracks her decompensation through fragmented flashbacks and hallucinations, but Strahovski resists the temptation to go For-Your-Consideration big. Instead, she renders Sofie’s distress as a series of agonizing internal implosions, as she succumbs to debilitating paranoia.

The ending does offer viewers a modicum of hope, without discounting the significant reforms still required to amend immigration policies around the globe. Stateless is a bit of a tough sit, for sure, but you’ll find it even tougher to turn away. A-

Stateless premieres July 8 on Netflix.

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