Unbelievable review: New Netflix miniseries is gut-wrenchingly good, but difficult to watch
Directors - Lisa Cholodenko, Michael Dinner, Susannah Grant
Cast - Toni Collette, Merritt Weaver, Kaitlyn Dever
There is a catharsis to watching the new Netflix miniseries, Unbelievable, that goes beyond its difficult subject matter. Most of it has to do with the timing of its release. In addition to being an excellent television show, it serves as an uncomfortable, but necessary capper to a particularly sickening week.
In the span of a few days, two supremely disheartening things happened. Music composer Anu Malik, accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, was reportedly reinstated as a judge on a reality show. And Aamir Khan, one of the most respected actors in the country reversed his decision to not work with Subhash Kapoor, a filmmaker who’s been accused of sexual misconduct.
Watch the Unbelievable trailer here
In the cases of Malik and director Subhash Kapoor, allegations were made, and subsequently denied. The reaction back then was markedly different from the casual indifference that we’re seeing now, almost a year after the fact. Where there once was outrage, there is now silence. The same people who not 12 months ago leapt to the defence of others are now averting their eyes.
The difference with which men and women react to allegations of sexual assault is a key theme in Unbelievable. Over eight episodes, the show tells two parallel stories that overlap, intersect, and ultimately converge.
In one timeline, set in 2008, a girl is raped by a masked man in her apartment. She files a police complaint and the case is handed to a couple of middle-aged male detectives. Unsatisfied with her statement, which she is made to repeat multiple times, they coerce her — a 16-year-old who is alone in the world — to retract her allegations and admit that she’d lied. To add insult to injury, they slap a charge of filing a false report on Marie (Kaitlyn Dever), despite the fact that she hasn’t implicated anyone.
Ironically, while the detectives went out of their way to find holes in Marie’s statements, they believe her instantly when she says that she made the whole thing up. To be clear, not even for one moment is it implied that the assault didn’t happen; this is purely an example of systemic biases having the worst consequences on a serious case. As Marie says in the show, “If the truth is inconvenient, they don’t believe it.”
Three years later, a female detective is summoned to a crime scene. Another young woman has been raped. Immediately, the differences in the detectives’ approach are apparent. While the male detectives displayed a dispassionate cynicism in conducting their interviews with Marie, Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) is patient, empathetic, and respectful in her interaction with the victim. She takes permission before asking questions, she explains medical procedures calmly and with great care, and most importantly, she believes what she is being told.
Karen’s investigation leads her to believe that the perpetrator is, in fact, a serial offender. She finds patterns in his behaviour that suggest that he has done this in the past. Through a welcome coincidence, she teams up with Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) to track him down, as the two parallel plot lines hurtle towards each other.
Under a less assertive hand, the show could have very easily fallen off the rails, but the Oscar- nominated Lisa Cholodenko, Michael Dinner, and co-creator Susannah Grant direct with a workmanlike efficiency that both Karen and Grace would be proud of. They handle the contrasting tones of the two threads with a delicate touch. There is very little time for sermonising — only on one occasion does Grace yell, “Where is the outrage?” — and even less for histrionics.
A crucial difference that I spotted was in its depiction of the actual assault. While the very similar series Delhi Crime made the wise decision to show absolutely no part of the rape, Unbelievable, like Marie, relives the distressing incident over and over again. Perhaps it has something to do with the show’s perspective; it is just as much Marie’s story of recovery as it is of Karen and Grace’s investigation. Delhi Crime, as you’d remember, focussed only on the police work. This leaves Unbelievable with the immense responsibility of telling Marie and the other victims’ stories with necessary respect, at which, I am pleased to report, it is massively successful.
And because it is directed in such a straightforward manner, much of the emotional heavy-lifting is done by its trio of leads. Wever and Collette are terrific together - the former an earnest, yet assertive powerhouse, and the latter more weathered, more world-weary, but just as driven. Describing their chemistry as ‘fun’ feels decidedly odd, considering the gravity of the show’s themes. But under different circumstances, I feel they’d make for great company.
But what a year young Kaitlyn Dever is having. She was so vibrant in Booksmart, one of my favourite films of 2019; and she is devastating here, as the stoic Marie, who has suffered more injustices in just 16 years than most people cannot in 16 lifetimes. Rightfully so, she finds herself questioning the nature of human beings, and whether or not there is any redemption to be found in their behaviour. These are the questions that should be on all our minds.
And now that Aamir Khan can sleep without living with the guilt of costing Subhash Kapoor his job, perhaps he could watch Unbelievable?