In 2004, an Australian citizen named Cornelia Rau was wrongly imprisoned in an immigrant detention camp in her home country. Mentally ill and traumatized after time spent in a cult, Rau had claimed to be a German citizen, though she possessed no paperwork that confirmed her identity. The byzantine halls and trap doors of bureaucracy kept her confined in quasi-prison, unbeknownst to her family, for 10 months. It’s a startling and sad story, and it’s not hard to see why someone would want to dramatize it for television.
Stateless, an Aussie import from creators Cate Blanchett, Tony Ayers, and Elise McCredie, which arrived to Netflix last week, does just that, tracing a similar arc for a character named Sofie Werner (Yvonne Strahovski). The series sets her story against the bleak backdrop of a detention center teeming with refugees and political asylum-seekers. Sofie’s plight is meant to highlight theirs, as, in real life, the shocking reveal that one of Australia’s own — that is, a young white woman from a good family — was snagged in the gears of governmental failure prompted investigations into all manner of abuses and ills in the nation’s immigration system.
But, in Stateless, the juxtaposition only underscores a gross imbalance in storytelling. Sofie and her counterparts — unlawful non-citizens or “UNCs,” in the jargon of the detention center guards and brass — have suffered the same fate, but their journeys, other than bringing them to the same physical place, don’t really intersect in meaningful ways. Instead of elevating these immigrant stories, the show diminishes them, by heaping attention on Sofie, as well as the white bureaucrats and guards who work at the detention center. They are the narrative focus, sucking up all the series’ energy, while the refugees exist mostly for atmosphere, there to be pitied but not fully represented or truly understood — at least not as deeply as Sofie is. The ironic effect of the show’s investment in Sofie is that her story feels less and less valuable as the series goes on.
When we meet her, Sofie is pulled-together and polished, if fraying a touch at the edges. She works as a flight attendant, thrilled by the adventures the job offers. Escape is her lifeblood, and we quickly learn why, when she returns to her parents’ house for Christmas. Her stern mother is dismissive of tales from Sofie’s travels, focused instead on setting her up with a boring local businessman they’ve invited to dinner. Her father is gentler but kowtows to his wife at every turn. Her sister, Margot, meanwhile, is the child who’s done it right: successful marriage, kids. It’s pretty average suburban-malaise stuff — but Sofie is so suffocated by the environment she literally crawls out a bathroom window and runs away.
She’s soon swept up in a New Age-y cult run by a creepy couple, Gordon and Pat Masters (Dominic West, tapping a predatory vein, and Cate Blanchett, being Cate Blanchett), who swiftly sniff out Sofie’s vulnerabilities and manipulate her. When she suffers a breakdown, they cast her out of their ranks, the event that precipitates her confused and aimless wanderings around Australia. Strahovski is nimble throughout the series, shifting deftly among bright confidence, childlike subservience, and trembling paranoia. Still, you find yourself wondering as Stateless progresses whether this is a show about a woman with mental illness or the multipronged sociopolitical drama it aspires to be.
The answer doesn’t become much clearer as the series teases out its three other main storylines, only one of which is devoted to another detainee. Cam (Suicide Squad’s Jai Courtney) is a working-class bloke who hesitatingly takes a job as a guard at the camp to better provide for his growing family. Initially, he’s the staff’s bleeding heart, but his decency and compassion are ground down within weeks thanks to the stresses of the work. (Early on he hangs swings for the children in the recreation yard of the family pen, only to be chastised since they present a suicide risk.) Clare (Asher Keddie) is an immigration department suit sent to oversee operations at the detention center and mitigate bad press. She’s vibrating with can-do attitude when she arrives, but eventually descends into despair over her overwhelming responsibilities and the dehumanization of her charges. And finally there is Ameer (Faysaal Bazzi), an Afghan refugee who fled his homeland with his wife and school-age daughters. The show suggests that he made this choice so his girls could be educated; but we never really learn much about Ameer’s motivations or his life in Afghanistan. Only Sofie gets a backstory.
Still, the Crash-for-immigration approach works better than it should over these six episodes, mostly because the excellent cast sells every moment. Bazzi is heartbreaking in his soulful rendering of a father’s anguish. Courtney does “tough guy with a heart of gold” as well as anyone, signaling Cam’s moral collapse even in his body language — from relaxed and playful to tense and robotic the deeper he wades into the cold cruelty the job requires. Keddie’s misguided bluster when she assumes command of the camp channels every woman who’s ever struggled with projecting authority in a male-dominated environment.
Even the refugees whose stories are mere sketches in the show’s tableau are sympathetic, thanks to actors who make the most of the crumbs they’re given. There’s Javad (an affecting Phoenix Raei), a reserved yet defiant Iraqi who seems to be plotting something. Farid and Mosi (Claude Jabbour and Kwame M. Kamara), two men Ameer befriended on an early leg of his journey, while they all awaited a boat arranged by a smuggler, are affable strangers who nurture their new bond to sustain themselves through their ordeal. Rosna (Helana Sawires) is a proud and sharp-tongued young Kurdish woman who eyes Sofie — the camp’s only white resident — with suspicion. Some other detainees remain nameless, placed in scenes like set decoration or to gesture at the persistence and ubiquity of oppression there (an elderly Asian woman who cultivates a garden in the bleak desert courtyard; an older gentleman who for seven years has been sitting outside every day in a suit, with a suitcase at his feet, patiently waiting to be granted his visa or deported).
The problem, of course, is that any curiosity these performers generate in their characters’ stories is never satisfied. The show doesn’t stay with them long, always cutting back instead to Sofie, crouched in a fetal position and weeping or extending her arms and doing a dreamy, hallucination-induced dance on a stage no one can see. She wants desperately to be deported out of Australia, while the other prisoners desperately want in; but, in the end, it’s difficult to extract meaning from this distinction, since Sophie’s desires are driven not politically but by her mental illness. She is being persecuted by demons in her head, a tragedy of its own kind, but one that pales in comparison with the life-or-death stakes most refugees face at home.
Stateless asks important questions about where and to whom we belong, what constitutes home, and what our moral obligation is to one another. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give its refugees the chance to answer for themselves.