For ten months in 2004 and 2005, an Australian citizen named Cornelia Rau was detained at the Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre and then at a place called the Baxter Detention Centre, a lonely place in the outback that is typically occupied by immigrants awaiting confirmation of their status or deportation back to their home country. Mentally ill and possibly traumatized after time in a cult, Rau was suffering a severe mental breakdown, and a reporter broke the story that an Australian national was being unlawfully detained. An inquiry into dozens of other cases of unlawful detention and deplorable conditions erupted from the discovery of Rau.
Clearly, this is the kind of story that attracts filmmakers and showrunners, but is anyone interested in the story of the immigrant experience through a white woman’s eyes again? Creators Cate Blanchett, Tony Ayres, and Elise McCredie struggle with this aspect of the true story of Rau, but at least they’re aware enough of the issue to try and balance Rau’s story with other victims of a deeply flawed immigrant detention system. The result is “Stateless,” a sometimes clunky but often powerful look at how easily awful mistakes can be made by good people when an entire system is broken.
“Stateless” starts with its version of the Rau story, casting Yvonne Strahovski (“A Handmaid’s Tale”) as Sofie Werner, a flight attendant fed up with her life. She ends up drawn into the spider’s web of a self-help cult called GOPA, headed by the charismatic Pat (Blanchett) and her partner Gordon (Dominic West). They groom Sofie in a way that makes her feel like she can finally let her emotional pain go, but they have darker motives, leading to greater trauma that breaks Sofie and sends her fleeing everything, including her own identity.
Cut to Baxter, where Sofie has ended up with no documentation and fluctuating stories about her background. She just wants to be deported to Germany, but that’s not so easy with nothing that proves who she is, and so she’s thrown into the bare-bones facility that’s primarily used to house immigrants before they’re deported. And she’s essentially forgotten.
At Baxter, Sofie’s arc collides with an Afghani father named Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi), whose family was ripped from him as he fled his war-torn country to find a better life for his daughters. Not long after Sofie’s arrival, a young man with a family named Cam Sandford (Jai Courtney) gets a job at Baxter as a guard, stunned by the abuse his colleagues inflict on the detainees but unable to do anything about it. At the same time, a bureaucrat named Claire (Asher Keddie) is brought in to fix some of the bad press around Baxter, and even she succumbs to a system designed to sweep things under the rug.
If it sounds like a lot for a mini-series, it’s true that “Stateless” can sometimes feel unfocused, or at least wrong-focused. As the stories of Ameer and others at Baxter take time in the spotlight, Sophie fades into the background a bit, and one can’t help but shake the feeling that the show keeps returning to her because of star power more than actual interest or insight. Yes, the Rau story helped pull back the curtain on a lot of inequity, but Sophie’s arc in “Stateless” is actually the least interesting of the four.
There’s a smarter version of “Stateless” that doesn’t focus so much on Sophie’s family trying to find her or flashbacks to the trauma inflicted upon her, amplifying more of the average detainee experience than hers. For example, when Claire gets there, she’s asked to quiet the bad press around a pair of Sri Lankan detainees who are staging a protest on the roof after their cases have dragged on for four years. How does a detainee in what should be a simple immigration process get stuck in the middle of the outback while paperwork is processed for that long? The Sophie/Rau plot may be the most dramatically extreme, but Ameer’s story of how trying to find a better life for his family tore it apart feels more tragically common.
“Stateless” sometimes has a habit of spelling out its themes in dialogue (“All you want to do is leave and all we want to do is stay”), but it avoids melodrama, for the most part, allowing actions to feel genuine and characters to find depth. Courtney has arguably never been this good, avoiding the macho action trope he’s played before to find the core of a genuinely decent person who realizes that he can’t do the decent thing anymore. Keddie takes a part that could have been two-dimensional and captures the frustration of a woman who doesn’t want bureaucracy to damage decency but also needs to keep her job. And Bazzi is the real find, taking a role that could have been manipulative and making it emotionally powerful. “Stateless” starts as Sophie’s story but ends as Ameer’s.
Ultimately, “Stateless” is empathetic and engaging more often than manipulative, and that’s what matters most. There’s an honest desire to engage with the flaws of a broken system and humanize everyone involved from the immigrant to the guard to the boss to the woman who never should have been there in the first place. In the end, a system as broken as immigration is in most countries in the world has the power to alter and damage the lives of anyone who gets near it. “Stateless” understands that, feeling like a plea to really see those stuck in places like Baxter around the world. The uncommon story of Cornelia Rau may have been a headline-grabbing outlier, but one of its truly unexpected outcomes was how it will lead Netflix viewers around the world to the powerful, tragically common story of Ameer. [B]
“Stateless” arrives on Netflix on July 8.