Nathaniel Martello-White makes an impressive writer/director debut in twisty horror film The Strays on Netflix
“Exactly Ian, the two worlds don’t mix”
Nathaniel Martello-White has long been an actor whose work I’ve enjoyed (Knives in Hens, Edward II, Who Cares) but he’s not been on our stages much recently. Turns out he’s been busy recently making his feature film debut as writer/director on new British psychological horror film The Strays. Adding to an intriguing strand of Netflix commissions, it’s a bold piece of cinema-making that feels destined to be divisive in both form and content.
Martello-White has history here, his 2016 play Torn was an undoubted challenge at the Royal Court, but whilst this is perhaps less formally inventive, there’s a spikiness at its heart that I appreciated. The film shifts from different points-of-view throughout – we meet Cheryl, a flashforward 20 years later and we meet Neve, who looks very similar, then later a sideways shift sees us skip back 5 days to revisit part of the story through the eyes of two young strangers whose appearance rocks Neve’s world.
Ashley Madekwe delivers an astonishing performance at the heart of the film as Neve. A biracial woman neatly inserted into upper-middle-class society as the deputy head of the largely-white private school that her two kids attend, she’s hugely unnerving as an embodiment of internalised racism. Her life is spent studiously avoiding any overt signs of Blackness, even to the point of micro-managing her daughter’s hair, but like the itch under her pristine wigs, there’s something niggling away.
That manifests through the arrival of two enigmatic figures (Bukky Bakray and Jorden Myrie) who ingratiate their way in Neve’s family life and then thorough upend it as psychological damage from the past explodes with real potency in the present. Martello-White’s direction amps up the unease from the start and through Madekwe’s evocation of Neve’s eerie mode of self-possession, its commentary about race and class hit home hard.