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'Cheat' is a Chilling and Captivating Thriller
November 21, 2019  | By David Hinckley

The British psycho-thriller Cheat has moments when it's tough to watch. At the same time, it's impossible not to watch.

Cheat, a four-episode closed-end series that becomes available Thursday on the streaming service Sundance Now, captures the tension that made movies like Fatal Attraction and Hand That Rocks the Cradle so gripping, while spinning out a clever new story of its own.

Leah (Katherine Kelly, top) is a lecturer at a prestigious university, following in the footsteps of her renowned father. Her career has reached the flashpoint of academia, where she's about to learn whether the school will offer her a permanent position.

Her perfectly nice, smart, and perhaps somewhat bland husband, Adam (Tom Goodman-Hill), supports her in this pursuit. At the same time, they're engaged in a frustrating, extended struggle to conceive a child.

You'd think Leah would not want any stressful distractions at this point, and she doesn't. 
Until Cheat breaks out.

One of Leah's classes includes a mildly problematic student named Rose (Molly Windsor, top), who habitually comes in late and never contributes. More significantly, Rose hands in a major paper that Leah is convinced she copied, or bought, or otherwise did not create on her own.

Rose denies this. Rose also doesn't seem able to produce any notes or research, so Leah gives her a failing grade on the grounds of suspected cheating.

Rose does not take the news well. We viewers don't know for sure if she did cheat, but we do know that even though Rose is well-positioned at the school – her father donated half the library – she doesn't seem inclined to appeal her way through whatever process most schools offer in these situations.

No, Rose seems to prefer a simpler and more direct sort of justice – and by happy coincidence for Rose, she has a card of her own to play.

Rose's strategy escalates quickly, and the story accelerates accordingly. It walks an impressive line between patiently parceling out information one factoid at a time and quickening its pace.

We get hints right up front that something bad eventually happens. By the second episode, we see what it is, and what further consequences it holds for all the characters – including innocent peripherals like Leah's best friend Amy (Lara Rossi).

The Leah/Rose faceoff makes Cheat feel at times like a cousin, albeit a distant cousin, of Killing Eve. To say much more would compromise the fun of watching Cheat, which became the second most popular debut show in the U.K. earlier this year.

It can be said that while Rose clearly is a disturbed young woman, Leah doesn't make all good decisions, either. This gives Cheat some interesting grey areas, though most viewers won't have trouble deciding where their greater sympathy falls.

Cheat also uses the short-series form well. Its four nights add up to about three hours of story, which would feel long as a movie, but makes for a tense, compelling build when it's split up this way.

Kelly and Windsor, on whose characters the story rides, handle their roles superbly. While Leah and Rose both take actions that might seem extreme in real life, we see the increments by which those actions build.

In the end, no viewer will feel cheated.

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