“Stateless” lives and dies with its true story. Co-created by Cate Blanchett, Tony Ayres, and Elise McCredle, the new Netflix limited series draws inspiration from the life of Cornelia Rau, a former flight attendant whose 10-month imprisonment in an Australian immigration detention center sparked national debate down under. How did a local resident end up detained on her own soil for nearly a year?
To its credit, “Stateless” doesn’t tease out that question like a mystery, but the answers still prove too outrageous to ignore — and too distracting from the series’ ultimate focus. When Aussies learned that one of their own had been mistakenly detained in 2005, it drew massive and much-needed attention to a cruel and deeply flawed immigration system. Suddenly, the persecution of asylum-seekers wasn’t a problem for “outsiders”; it was a problem for everyone.
“Stateless” tries to reignite that same urgent response by replicating the same story, this time as a scripted narrative, expanded to feature a talented ensemble. (Yvonne Strahovski plays Sofie Werner, who’s based on Rau.) The six episodes are well-performed, well-made, and well-intentioned, but by focusing on one well-off, white victim — as well as many more white characters — “Stateless” is consumed by an extraordinary exception instead of confronting the ongoing disenfranchisement toward displaced detainees.
“Stateless” picks up with Sofie sprinting through the desert. Out of breath, covered in grime, and seemingly lost, she collapses to her knees, just as an out-of-place red balloon comes floating by. From there, the series flashes back in time, exhibiting its finite sense of humor by featuring the red balloon in select scenes from Sofie’s earlier, “normal” life. Before her death-defying jog through the outback, Sofie was a flight attendant and aspiring dancer. That may seem normal enough, until a stressful family dinner where she’s set up with a boring accountant leads Sofie to climb out a window and flee. OK… well… maybe she just really doesn’t like blind dates. Or maybe there’s a dark family history we’re not privy to yet. Or maybe she’s a member of a secret dance cult that’s preying on her second-child syndrome by making her caring sister out to be a villainous witch who sucks up all the world’s attention.
Ben King / Netflix
Ding ding ding, that’s the one, and yes, that really happened! (The cult part, at least.) Making this already tantalizing true story all the more alluring are the people playing Sofie’s cult leaders: Dominic West and Cate Blanchett. Appearing (briefly) as decked out Australian dance instructors who lure Sofie into an ever-more exploitative money-making scheme, West revives his deviant stare and devilish charm from all those years on “The Affair,” while Blanchett is utilized like a scalpel, fleshing out her expendable character’s entire backstory in just a fleeting, frightening glance. The parts are so small and the names so big, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn Blanchett, an ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, only joined the cast to help secure financing. (“Stateless” was made for Australian viewers and then acquired by Netflix.) But no matter why she’s onscreen, the trio of award-winning names associated with just one of the show’s four stories gives even more disproportionate weight to Sofie’s admittedly wild arc.
The other plotlines, while affecting, are pretty predictable. Jai Courtney (“A Good Day to Die Hard”) plays Cam, a mechanic, husband, and father who’s lured to taking a position on the detention center’s security team by the hefty paychecks. Playful, encouraging, and relaxed, Cam is soon hardened by what he sees transpire at the facility. Children are separated from their parents. Asylum-seekers are stranded for years, if not decades. Fights break out. His fellow guards range from uncaring to sadistic, and you can guess what happens as Cam weighs the cost of his soul.
A strikingly similar journey is given equal screentime with Claire (Asher Keddie), a political appointee sent to the detention center to sort out a growing public relations problem. At first, she can’t get a few detainees to come down from the roof. Soon, more problems start to pop up, and the pressure starts to build. She’s trying to keep the public from knowing what she already knows, but as a pure-hearted reporter living at the hotel room next door constantly reminds her, Claire doesn’t have to follow orders. Sometimes, you just have to do what’s right. (That, apparently, includes another stereotypical reporter-source relationship, though the series does hold back for a while.)
Ameer (played with convincing passion by Fayssal Bazzi) is the only person of color in the main cast. After giving what little money he has to a sketchy people smuggler, Ameer ends up at the detention center in search of his family. Plagued by poverty, misfortune, and a system that betrays his best intentions at every turn, Ameer’s story is both the most affecting and the least internalized. I don’t know anything about Ameer outside of his suffering; the show barely mentions where he’s from or why he’s fleeing, let alone what he did for work, what he’s passionate about, or any other defining characteristics that are so casually incorporated into other characters. Cam likes swimming pools, drinking beer, and rugby. He’s a guy’s guy with a built physique and a beer belly to match. Sofie is defined by too many facets to succinctly rattle off, which helps make her unique and compelling. (Strahovski also helps, committing to every one of Sofie’s beliefs, no matter how misguided.)
Ameer is mostly representative; he and his family stand-in for a majority of the 70 million displaced people seeking sanctuary from war and prosecution around the world, a statistic cited in the series’ closing title cards. “Stateless” expects viewers to be lured in by familiar faces and a sensational true story before being bowled over by the people and stories we don’t know. But in 2020, audiences are all too familiar with the regular mistreatment of immigrants; they don’t need a Trojan Horse to identify with people who spend years, not months, in cages, and Rau’s story isn’t chosen because it’s the best representation for what displaced people go through. As a true story that touches on a worldwide crisis, “Stateless” does its job. As a current interrogation of that crises, it comes up a bit short.
“Stateless” is streaming now on Netflix.