Julia Roberts in ‘Homecoming’
Julia Roberts in ‘Homecoming’

Opinion | Not just a pretty woman

The most iconic actress of our time makes her television debut with a cleverly unfolding mystery series

It takes a while to figure out where Homecoming is headed. This is partly due to the show’s elaborate and impressive aerial shots, ambitious overhead visuals of lunchrooms and laboratories. Information is crammed into the shots in sinisterly efficient fashion, less reminiscent of the way Wes Anderson shoots a diner table and more like the iconic library shot in All The President’s Men. We see a world and many, many moving pieces, but this god’s-eye view is humbling, if only because we don’t know where to look: is this a labyrinth we are supposed to figure out, or merely a Monopoly board mid-game?

Created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg and based on their podcast of the same name, Homecoming is an Amazon Prime mystery about a facility set up to help American soldiers returning from war to transition smoothly back into normal life. Every episode is directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, and despite an intricate narrative running across two timelines, the average running time is only a brisk 30 minutes, making for 10 gripping episodes. Another reason it is compelling is because, for the first time ever on a television series, we—like the returning soldiers—get to be enraptured by Julia Roberts.

The most iconic actress of our time, Roberts is a motion picture force of nature with a Cinemascope smile, a performer who makes acting appear so effortless that people sometimes forget how good she is. Television is an intriguing step for this screen-conquering legend, and Roberts is perfectly deployed by Homecoming. It casts her as a cipher—someone to talk to, someone to comfort and soothe traumatized soldiers, while batting those tell-me-everything eyes—as well as someone trying to piece together her own past.

The story flits between the past, building up to an incident involving Roberts’ Heidi Bergman and a young war veteran named Walter Cruz, and the future, where that incident is being investigated by an official from the Department of Defense, while Heidi works as a waitress and doesn’t remember what went on at the homecoming facility.

The show is gorgeous, with Esmail and cinematographer Tod Campbell toying with our sense of peripheral vision. The “Future" sections are filmed in a square aspect ratio, as if cropped to fit an Instagram feed, cruelly leaving out information. Somewhere in there lies a nod to Xavier Dolan’s unforgettable 2014 film Mommy, also shot mostly square. The “Past" sections are beautifully shot in full-screen, with those overhead shots I mentioned earlier and very nifty use of split-screens, but at all times in the show there is a constant tilt-shift, with only the centre of the screen truly in focus—sharp 4K HDR focus you can’t ignore—while things blur as we look to the top and bottom edges. The difference in vision is not only about the then and the now, it is in being able to see. It is as if we are consuming the story with blinkers on, which, as with all truly clever mysteries, we are.

This is a story about paranoia. Cruz’s mother tries to hunt down her son hidden away in this detached facility, and one of the clues she picks up on is that the Geist group bankrolling the Homecoming project is also the company that makes her laundry detergent. That question driving her—why would an FMCG company possibly want to help people?—may well be cynical but is also immediately, undeniably relatable. We don’t trust those we buy from.

I wasn’t sold on Mr. Robot. I’d seen that first season twist coming a mile away, and Esmail placed too much emphasis on that revelation. He is more skilful with this series, creating intrigue and mood while achieving impressive narrative economy. You can down the first season of Homecoming in a day, yet have enough to ponder and debate. It feels like a long-form version of a truly satisfying Black Mirror episode.

The cast is top notch, especially Stephan James as Cruz, Sissy Spacek as Heidi’s mother, and Bobby Cannavale as Heidi’s supervisor Colin, a man who barks orders into tiny earpieces as he goes about his life of birthday parties and golf courses, always hands-free but always hands on. Shea Whigham is terrific as Thomas Carrasco, a DoD officer attacking the case with the unreasonable relentlessness of a man who finds one story particularly itchy, and can’t stop scratching at it.

Roberts is a wonder. There are times when her character puts up with unworthy men, but Roberts lets us see the wheels turn behind her eyes. She might not remember, but she’s certainly smart enough to bluff through it. Homecoming salutes the movie star with specific homages—a handsome actor from My Best Friends Wedding is around, and a conversation with detailed instructions about a bird can literally be called The Pelican Brief—but most so by letting her laugh.

That laugh, that glorious laugh, has the spontaneity of an outtake. In a scene where Cruz plays a prank on her, Roberts guffaws as if fooled by the crew around her and not the characters. Perhaps she was. We might never know. The world’s greatest smile can also be the world’s greatest hiding place.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets @rajasen

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