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I Am Victoria is astonishing, empathetic and more anxiety-inducing than most horror movies – review

I Am Victoria is astonishing, empathetic and more anxiety-inducing than most horror movies - review
Suranne Jones is a raw nerve of a woman in this semi-improvised episode of Dominic Savage’s ‘I Am…’ series

I Am Victoria is deeply unpleasant to watch. There is no violence, no gore, no jump scares and no wild plot twists, and yet I was more anxious watching it than I am most horror movies.

Suranne Jones is Victoria, a raw nerve of a woman whose seemingly perfect life – high-flying job, husband, two daughters, enormous house – is accompanied by a looming sense of dread. Everything with which she busies herself is carried out with a manic, glassy-eyed terror, as if the entire world she has built is designed to stave off psychological turmoil. She cleans cutlery. She complains about a late delivery. She does a gruelling Hiit workout followed by an icy cold shower – a socially acceptable form of self-punishment. She has lost herself in a cycle of control.

Initially, it seems like she might just be highly strung. She snaps at her husband Christian (Ashley Walters, an efficiently calming counter-presence) for asking for a kiss when she’s in the middle of work. She tells her children to change out of their leggings because “leggings are for sportswear… and for longing around the house at a push”. But she is unravelling: behind closed doors at first, when she slaps her face and practises saying “hi darling” in the mirror, and then for all to see. If there has been a better portrayal of someone teetering on the edge of a breakdown, I can’t think of it.

Most disturbing is the extent to which Victoria has shut out those around her. Not explicitly – she still talks, still engages, still has plausible deniability – but she won’t drop the facade even as it is shattering. “I want people to like the house and I want people to like me and I want to make an effort,” Victoria tells her husband, coldly, when he tries and fails to get through to her.

This is one of three self-contained episodes of the second series of I Am…, which was created, written and directed by Bafta-winning Dominic Savage. It is largely improvised, the stories developed in partnership with the leading actors. Jones had a “small breakdown myself” shortly before the pandemic, and injects much of that experience into this. It explains the unsettlingly realist tone – the dialogue overlapping, the camera wobbling as if to keep up with the cast’s unexpected movements, arguments feeling uncomfortably real. So too does Jones’s performance when Victoria hosts a dinner party, drops a plate of blinis on the floor and cries out, “They’re looking at me!” She is like an open wound; nobody around her knows what to do.

This is an astonishing, empathetic hour of television – but by the time Victoria is biting down on a carton of soya milk to stop herself from screaming, I find myself wanting to bite down on something too.