Under Cover


PG, 91 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury




A timely, sombre investigation of homelessness among the growing demographic of older women who never imagined it would happen to them

While homelessness is a painful reality for the people experiencing it in this wealthy country, it seems also a difficult reality for others to acknowledge. It seems to represent a blind spot. People look away, feel embarrassed by the sight of others who are sleeping rough under tarpaulin in the streets, or carting their belongings in a supermarket trolley from one shelter to the next.

Yet homelessness may not mean sleeping rough without the dignity of shelter, it can simply mean that because of low-income, disadvantage or distress, people are unable to put a roof over their heads. They may be couch surfing at a friend’s, or living in a campervan, permanently, or sleeping in their car.

The women in their fifties and over who are interviewed in this modest, timely documentary by writer-director Sue Thomson have each responded in different ways to losing their home. You wouldn’t have known that they were homeless. It has been something that they have been at pains to conceal.

None of the ten women who made it to final cut here are sleeping on cardboard on a city pavement, but the diverse group—Linda, Nada, Sarah-Jane, Suzelle, Susan, Margaret, Claire, Cheryl, Mary and Rama—cannot afford a home that is adequate for their health and well-being.

It is a tribute to Thomson’s empathetic people skills that her interviewees were eventually prepared to be open and share their story

They tell their stories where the filmmaker found them. At a campsite in the rainforest, in a caravan park, in the outback, at a hostel or in pop-up accommodation for the homeless. Under Cover was filmed during Covid lockdowns.

The women report that once they became homeless, the shame and sadness of their circumstances caused friends to drop away. One of them suggests that others couldn’t bear to reflect on the possibility that it could have been them who were homeless.

The tone of Under Cover is often melancholic, and that is hardly surprising, though it is relieved by interviews with wonderful people like Rob Pradolin who turned his acute embarrassment for so many women over 50 becoming homeless, into action. He has set up an organization that co-opts buildings, standing empty and idle, into pop-ups for the homeless.

It’s also heartening that among the women who feature, Claire G. has been able to turn her fortunes around by establishing a career as a playwright and an award-winning science fiction novelist. Not everyone’s circumstances are as hopeful.

The doco’s intrepid filmmaker is in her fifties herself. Despite the stoicism of her subjects, she admits that her project was a tough, sometimes tearful gig and that it may be difficult for her film to find an audience.

Landing Margot Robbie for the narration was a tremendous coup that will surely pay off

The glamorous blonde in The Wolf of Wall Street, and other high profile big-budget Hollywood vehicles also has a keen interest in independent film. Some of Robbie’s indie work has been audacious, like her lead and producer role in the mockumentary, I, Tonya, but most especially in the astonishing revenge drama, Promising Young Woman, that has broken new ground.

Some of the statistics revealed in narration are startling. For instance, more than 400,000 women over the age of 50 in Australia today are either experiencing or at risk of homelessness, and they are the fastest growing cohort in the space.

Acute housing stress around Australia will see many more women homeless, something so many of the participants in this doco clearly thought would never happen. They thought they were doing the right thing. They had put their careers on hold, had little or no superannuation to access, had raised children or cared for aging parents, then suddenly woke up one day to find themselves homeless.

Thomson was inspired to make Under Cover after reading homelessness statistics published in 2018. Homelessness has woeful impacts on all demographics, including young people and Indigenous Australians, but the growing number of older women who find themselves homeless is something new.

If the recent Academy award winning feature, Nomadland, brought a touch of poetry to its meandering tale of a woman on the road in her van in lieu of a fixed home, Under Cover will set you right.

Published in the Canberra Times on 11 October 2022.  Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes