Based on Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, the miniseries “Nine Perfect Strangers” follows a group of troubled individuals to Tranquillum House, a mysterious wellness retreat that is rumored to deliver miraculous results.
Despite what the title implies, these people are far from perfect. Francis (Melissa McCarthy) is a failing writer who comes to Tranquillum after getting scammed by an internet catfish, while Carmel (Regina Hall) is a recent divorcee who seems happy and innocent but is hiding a deep rage. Ben and Jessica (Melvin Gregg and Samara Weaving) are social media influencers and high school sweethearts whose marriage is failing, despite their success, and Tony (Bobby Cannavale) is a former football player turned drug addict. Then there’s the Marconi family (Michael Shannon, Asher Keddie and Grace Van Patten) — they’re reluctant but willing to try anything to recover from the traumatic death they’ve experienced. Last but not least, Even Lars (Luke Evans), a seemingly cynical skeptic, has a secret motivation for coming to the retreat.
The guests are all, in one way or another, at a crossroads in their lives. They’re nearly ready to give up — until they meet Masha.
Masha, played by Nicole Kidman, is a former businesswoman and the leader of Tranquillum. After immigrating to the United States from Russia, she became a powerful CEO and achieved a seemingly perfect life. Then, as she left work one day, a mysterious gunman attacked her. The gunshot left her clinically dead for a short period of time before paramedics brought her back to life. In her recovery, she realized that she needed to change her ways and leave the fast-paced world of corporate America behind.
At Tranquillum House, Masha is assisted by Yao (Manny Jacinto), the former EMT who saved her life, and his partner Delilah (Tiffany Boone). Upon first arrival, the two assistants approach the guests in white uniforms and calmly confiscate their cell phones, food, alcohol and anything else that reminds them of their lives back home. It’s important, they tell the guests, they remain in complete isolation.
Although many of the guests express their doubts about Tranquillum House even before they arrive, they all stay because of Masha’s reputation for dramatically transforming her clients. In their first meeting, Masha promises the guests’ pain and suffering will end in transformation and recovery. She tells them her own story of death and rebirth and reveals her intention to give all of them the same opportunity. “When you leave here,” she tells them, “you will not be the same person that you are now.”
The first day at Tranquillum House is strange, to say the least. Immediately, each guest receives a fruit smoothie and instructions to drink to the last drop and not share with anyone else. They are then invited to a group therapy session that, within minutes, includes more than one guest in extreme distress. Some guests remain skeptical, and others think that Masha is simply a sadist. But they are all compelled to stay despite their doubts, as if by some otherworldly force.
Though Masha’s methods seem harsh, her approach to wellness is exciting to the group of individuals who are all desperate for change. Her motives come into question, though, when guests start experiencing strange hallucinations as well as physical and mental breakdowns.
“Nine Perfect Strangers” is a slow burn. The discomfort grows under the surface and then erupts at unexpected moments. However, despite this strange feeling, the show is never unpleasant. Instead, this spectacle of beautiful nonsense tugs on viewers’ curiosity and pulls them deeper into the mysteries of Tranquillum.
What makes “Nine Perfect Strangers” an especially compelling show is how the cinematography unsettles the audience as much as the acting and dialogue. The more disturbed the guests become, the more the cinematography reflects their feelings by subtly disorienting the viewer. At times, it’s tough to tell whether you’re imagining what you just saw or if it really happened. As the characters onscreen question their sanity, the audience finds themselves doing the same.
At the same time, the show features beautiful scenery and many visually appealing shots. While the fictional Tranquillum House is located in a remote area of California, “Nine Perfect Strangers” was filmed at a real wellness retreat in Byron Bay, Australia. The dreamy background creates a juxtaposition of allure and absurdness for a show that is deliciously, endlessly intriguing.
Another strength of “Nine Perfect Strangers” is its extraordinary cast. RogerEbert.com calls the show “a true actor’s showcase” full of “uniformly strong performances from people that you haven’t exactly seen in this light.”
Although the cast is full of familiar faces, the show presents them in unfamiliar ways. Nicole Kidman’s long blonde hair and flowing dresses give her an ethereal look reminiscent of a princess, a ghost or both. Samara Weaving, known for her roles in “The Babysitter” and “Ready or Not,” undergoes perhaps the most shocking transformation of all. In order to become Jessica the social media influencer, Weaving dons a fake tan, fake lips and even fake teeth.