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I Am Ruth, review: Kate Winslet’s claustrophobic drama brings to life the sinister side of social media

Dominic Savage’s I Am… drama series takes a flinty yet empathetic look at women leading unhappy lives across the social spectrum. During the first season in 2019, for instance, we met Kirsty, a cleaner struggling to make ends meet while dealing with various lousy men. In the second series, in 2021, there was Victoria, a high-flyer on the verge of a breakdown. 

So when this feature-length one-off introduced us to Ruth (Kate Winslet), a middle-class single mother with a dishy spinning instructor and suburban semi-D full of Alfred Wallis prints, it was fair to surmise that there would be darker forces roiling beneath the surface. And let’s say now: if you’re looking for light relief from this year’s carnival of bad news, I Am Ruth (Channel 4) won’t be one for you.

Ruth’s 17-year-old daughter, Freya – played by Winslet’s daughter, Mia Threapleton – used to be cheerful and studious but was becoming reclusive, secretive and, at intervals, explosively angry. The cause soon emerged. She was being sucked into the more sinister corners of social media, posting lurid photos of herself to feed a machine that only made her feel worse. She wasn’t sleeping, and her eating was confined to strange rituals involving Ritz crackers. Meanwhile, Ruth tried desperately to help, but found herself increasingly out of her depth. Much of the film, which sometimes felt more like a stage play, took place in their house. Winslet and Threapleton succeeded in evoking both unbearable claustrophobia and the burgeoning invisible barrier between mother and daughter.

Savage uses this series to explore capital-I issues – austerity, depression, coercive control – and the theme of social media could hardly have been more timely. Only in October, we had the report into the teenager Molly Russell’s death, attributed to “the negative effects of online content”. But the dangers of the internet have given rise to some very heavy-handed novels in recent years, and there’s a similar risk, as seen here, with TV. 

Freya’s deterioration played out like demonic possession. “I don’t know what’s wrong,” she said, echoing Regan in The Exorcist. Before long, amid one of many showdowns with Ruth, a knife was being brandished. The denouement, in which Freya destroyed her phone before meekly embracing her mother, was too neatly symbolic. Savage and Winslet, both parents, collaborated on the story, and there was little doubt about what they were trying to say. “I just want to smash your phone into a thousand pieces… and flush it down the f—ing loo” (Ruth’s words) would be a reasonable summary.

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