Cate Blanchett was an executive producer as well as the star of Hulu’s “Mrs. America,” but the multi-Oscared actor actually made her debut as a television producer when the mini-series “Stateless” premiered in Australia in March. She also created the six-part drama, with the Australian writers Elise McCredie (a longtime friend) and Tony Ayres, and appears in a supporting role as a torch-singing hustler who runs a cultlike self-help racket out of her dance school.
All of this Blanchettness is a good thing, of course — she’s predictably excellent as Pat, who gets to exercise her small-time song-and-dance talents in service of the scam, and warbles a creditable “Let’s Get Away From It All.”
But it’s also a case of misdirection, because “Stateless” isn’t about charismatic fraudsters, at least not directly. It’s about the troubled history of Australia’s mandatory-detention system for immigrants without visas, specifically the centers where asylum seekers are warehoused while their cases are processed.
And while the series, available in the United States on Netflix beginning Wednesday, is well made, well acted and well intentioned, it’s probably less interesting as a social-problem drama than as an example of what even the Cate Blanchetts of the world have to do to get a social-problem drama made.
The solution, in this case, is a four-pronged narrative, each strand involving a lost soul who washes up at a detention center in a desolate stretch of South Australia. One is an immigrant, Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi), an Afghan seeking asylum. The other three are white Australians: Clare (Asher Keddie), the center’s new immigration director, essentially the warden of what’s a prison in all but name; Cam (Jai Courtney), a local who takes a relatively well-paying job as a guard; and Sofie (Yvonne Strahovski of “The Handmaid’s Tale”), a troubled woman whose involvement with the cult leads, through a series of lies and mishaps, to her being detained at the center under a false name.
The disappearance of Sofie, an Australian citizen, into the detention system — her family has no idea what’s happened to her — is the most equal among these equal threads, and given current cultural trends it’s impossible not to notice that a critique of immigration policy is being delivered largely through the story of a white woman’s dilemma. But before leaping to judgment, consider that Sofie is based on an actual person, Cornelia Rau, and that it was the public shock over Rau’s imprisonment that finally spurred an investigation of wrongful detentions. So in this case, form follows government folly.
There’s another solid argument for focusing on Sofie: Her story is where we get to see not just Blanchett but also Dominic West, as Pat’s predatory husband and business partner, Gordon, and the Australian all-star Marta Dusseldorp (“A Place to Call Home”) as Sofie’s frantic sister. The show’s most interesting moments come in the first few episodes as Sofie is drawn in and then cast out by Pat and Gordon. West and Blanchett are particularly good in a scene when Gordon, suddenly realizing that Sofie has turned against him, leaps to his feet to publicly denounce her and Pat seamlessly goes along with his improvisation.
The other converging story lines of “Stateless” are credible and sometimes moving, but rarely surprising. The writers, McCredie and Belinda Chayko, lean into the tropes of the prison movie. (Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse directed.) Cam is the idealistic newbie, matched against a sadistic veteran guard (Rachel House). Clare is compassionate but takes a hard line to make up for the perceived disadvantage of being a woman; her opposite number is the cynical director of the center’s private security guards, played with engaging weariness by Darren Gilshenan (“No Activity”). The population includes a silent lifer, staring into the distance with his suitcase by his side, and a garrulous nut job, among other familiar prison-yard types.
Running in parallel are the fates of Sofie and Ameer — her fleeing her family, him trying to hold his together; her giving in to her delusions, him fighting to hold onto his sanity. Bazzi and Soraya Heidari are fine as Ameer and his young daughter, but they’re saddled with stiff dialogue and prefab nobility. As in so many immigrant stories told by Westerners, the third-world characters tend to talk as if they’re diagraming each sentence in their heads.
There’s a tinge of that sort of high-minded obviousness throughout “Stateless,” in the way it strategically deploys the Australian legal designation “unlawful noncitizens” and satirically frames statements about “duty of care” and handling prisoners in culturally appropriate ways. And its finale, unsurprisingly, offers bittersweet catharses for the Australian authority figures and sentimental irresolution for the detainees.
But there’s also a current of humor in the depictions of bureaucratic and disciplinary madness, especially in the early episodes. And from start to finish there’s the pleasure of the top-notch cast — surely another aspect of the Blanchett effect.
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