Cheat chronicles the relationship between a Cambridge student and a lecturer who accuses her of cheating. Time will tell if the rest of the series can live up to the slick, clever first instalment.
A large part of Cheat’s success is down to the stunning performance by Molly Windsor as the enigmatic and privileged student, Rose Vaughan. I first came across Molly in the film discussed in last week’s review, The Runaways; I wanted to write more about her then but didn’t have enough space. Quite simply, her performance is exquisite. In Cheat, she achieves that which was just out of her reach in The Runaways, and it is likely down to the role. In The Runaways, she was playing younger than her age, the surrogate mother to younger siblings, while her role in Cheat is nuanced and insidious. You can tell she’s relishing it and it’s impossible to look away.
Windsor has a face made for acting, and the talent of a performer that far exceeds her 21 years. There is a chameleon quality to her appearance; pale blue eyes that snap from icy to electric within seconds, and an understated style that speaks of emotion brewing just below the surface, though all you’ll get out of her is a twist of her lips or a flicker of the brow. There’s a chilling scene where, after failing her coursework, she sits in front of the mirror and practises an emotional appeal, accusing Leah of a vendetta against her. She then restarts the process and tries a different approach.
That’s not to say that Katherine Kelly as lecturer Leah doesn’t measure up; it takes real talent to make us actually like the everywoman, especially when treading on well-worn territory of a struggling marriage and fertility troubles. If anything, the disparate styles of the actresses make the conflict between the two even more believable.
Kelly is more human, less incendiary than Windsor. Similarly, director Louise Hooper takes a light hand with Cambridge, her cinematography innocuous and restrained whilst retaining an appreciation for beauty. There are a few requisite scenes of students punting on the Cam, and violet dusk drifting through the twisting, dimly lit streets. However, these are pared down in favour of a more original take, a drone mounted camera descending like an insect to follow Leah through the colleges. It’s to be applauded. Surfeit is tempting in such a rich backdrop as Cambridge, especially with the overhanging legacy of Oxbridge visual feasts such as Brideshead Revisited.
Cheat fills a space that currently has a dearth on TV: the dark academia genre, specifically college dramas. Its only notable companion was 2017’s Clique, which followed an Edinburgh University student becoming entangled with a mysterious all-female group of overachievers. In the end it felt little more than a watered down The Secret History, both slow and sensationalist by turns. Cheat’s script is tauter, more intelligent. I am bored of oversexed, narcotised teenagers that fail to shock — give me young adults with more intelligent methods of malevolence.