First Impressions: Nine Perfect Strangers revels in the slow burn of threat

Though it boasts a lush Byron Bay setting, is filled to the brim with aesthetically pleasing cast members, and is based around the notion of healing one’s self, Nine Perfect Strangers is decidedly unnerving.

Set in a secluded health and wellness resort named Tranquillum House, the nine perfect strangers of the title are the latest batch of visitors hoping their intended 10-day retreat will bring the peace and clarity they so clearly are desperate to find.  The irony of being dubbed “perfect” is not lost however, because as much as each individual is suffering through their own pain, resort leader Masha Dmitrichenko (Nicole Kidman) revels in their aching for her own twisted benefit.

Said strangers include polarising author Frances (Melissa McCarthy), investigative reporter Lars (Luke Evans), the mysteriously wealthy Ben (Melvin Gregg) and his shallow, social media-obsessed wife, Jessica (Samara Weaving), somewhat functional addict Tony (Bobby Cannavale), divorcee Carmel (Regina Hall), and the Marconi family, husband and wife Napoleon and Heather (Michael Shannon and Asher Keddie) and their young daughter, Zoe (Grace Van Patten).

In the early moments of the show’s eight episodes – media were afforded the first six to preview – there’s a deliberate reason that each character is introduced and subsequently framed in such surface level fashions.  Tony is angry, Frances is tightly wound, the Marconi’s appear disconnected…and as easy as it is to accuse the David E. Kelly-produced show of leaning too far in to such archetypes, there’s a calculated reason behind it all.  The show, based on Liane Moriarty‘s best-selling novel (the second of the Australian author’s works to be updated for television after Big Little Lies), wants these characters to unravel so drastically, so intimately, that their eventual healing feels all the more earned.  If that healing should ever be realised, that is

In typical Kelly fashion, Nine Perfect Strangers has a constant threat of unease lingering over every frame.  Characters may experience breakthroughs in their treatment – Frances and Carmel, for example, have violent urges pent up relating to men that have wronged them – but the treatment itself is linked to Masha’s own questionable ethics; though she shares her own past demons with the group as to why she started Tranquillum, later episodes start to reveal further insight into trauma she may not have faced herself.

Though perhaps not quite as twisted as the aforementioned Big Little Lies, the drama and dark secretive mentality the show delights in, as well as the occasional sequence of levity, keep these Strangers consistently engaging.  It certainly is to the show’s benefit too that it is stacked so impressively with a cast that suffers no weak links.  As much as the commanding, Russian-accented Kidman oversees the establishment, she almost feels secondary to the remaining ensemble.  McCarthy, finally out of the creative constraints of her husband, Ben Falcone (himself an occasional guest star here), utilises her comedic capabilities with an effortlessness, similarly reminding us how stellar a dramatic performer she is when handed sublime material, whilst Weaving elevates her character’s vapidity and uncovers someone whose outside perfection masks a myriad of relatable insecurities.

Keddie, who has rarely been afforded the chance to showcase her talents in an international project, is one of the show’s most welcome presences, with an arc surrounding her family’s tragedy that gives one of the multiple narratives its most emotional beatings; Shannon and Van Patten both benefiting from this too.

Seemingly leading to an implosion that suggests these latest guests could very well be Masha’s last, Nine Perfect Strangers maintains an energy and a level of discomfort throughout.  Those expecting a story of considerable mystery may not have their itches scratched – though that’s not to say their isn’t something of a devious nature at play – but audiences who appreciate melodrama and the slow burn of threat best make themselves acquainted with these particular strangers.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Nine Perfect Strangers will premiere its first three episodes in Australia and New Zealand on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, August 20th, 2021.  Each subsequent episode will be released weekly.  It will stream from August 18th, 2021 in the United States on Hulu.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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