Homecoming review – Julia Roberts' old-fashioned mystery has hints of Hitchcock

Amazon’s big hope for autumn sees Roberts play a psychologist caught up in a complicated government programme. But is Sam Esmail’s show too smart for its own good?

It was hard to hear about Homecoming (Amazon Prime) without feeling slightly sorry for Julia Roberts. Here she was, late to the party, making her television debut half a decade after every other big-name star in Hollywood. Worse, she was doing it on the third-best streaming platform in a landscape so cluttered that only a tiny percentage of shows can achieve any sort of meaningful cultural impact. Worst of all, she chose to bet all this on a series based on a podcast, of all things. Whichever way you looked at it, the signs weren’t great.

So, what a pleasant surprise it is to watch Homecoming and realise that, hey, it works. This is a solid, suspenseful, old-fashioned thriller that flicks backwards and forwards in time. In the present, Julia Roberts is a happy, driven administrator with a job that involves rehabilitating veterans back into civilian life. In the future, she’s a waitress in a diner. What happened to her, and whether or not she can accurately remember it, is the basis of the drama here. In that sense this momentum, this sense of “what the hell just happened?”, reminds you of another Amazon show, The Sinner.

However, this is much loftier than that. Not only does it feature a higher calibre of star, but it’s also directed by Mr Robot’s Sam Esmail, a singular talent capable of infusing even the most mundane scene with a sense of low-level dread.

Don’t worry if you – like me – found Mr Robot to be a bit too on the nose – a bit too Banksy – to enjoy properly; Homecoming makes for a much more interesting watch. Esmail’s framing still claws every last ounce of potential from each setup, but now it doesn’t look as if someone banged into the camera just before it started rolling. It’s mature. It’s old-fashioned. Yes, I realise that this is the second time this phrase has been used in the space of three paragraphs, but that’s because Homecoming courts it so mercilessly.

Specifically, it’s as old as Alfred Hitchcock. This is as loving a homage to Hitchcock as I’ve ever seen, and I once watched that Gus Van Sant Psycho remake. It’s stagy, it hinges on misdirection. There are complicated long shots and the orchestral score is distractingly archaic. At times this is to Homecoming’s detriment – at times it seems more like an exercise than a story – but elsewhere, when Esmail copies Hitchcock’s spirit rather than his camera angles, it works like a dream. For instance, one episode contains the single most inventive use of aspect ratio I have ever seen. Honestly, it’s dizzying how perfect it is.

But people aren’t going to commit to a five-hour series just to watch one specific shot. No, what matters most here is the ending. Mysteries live and die by the the reveal. Get it right and you will live for ever; mess it us and you ruin everything that led to it. Homecoming might be the easiest show in the world to spoil, so I’ll play it safe and only say is this: the intrigue pays off. This is a very satisfyingly structured series indeed.

And Julia Roberts is excellent. She’s undimmed from her glory days. She has a difficult role that in other hands might have come off as one-dimensionally glum, but here her megawatt smile – which can still part clouds, by the way – works to humanise her character. Her scenes with Stephan James, who plays a veteran, require her to call in more quiet craft than the past five years of her movie work combined, and she nails every one of them. Turns out television is exactly her medium. Welcome to the party, Julia.

Homecoming is available on Amazon Prime now


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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