The Assistant

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“It’s about Harvey Weinstein,” is how The Assistant is often shorthanded. Yes, but no. At a basic level Kitty Green’s bracingly edgy film really is about an assistant at a movie production house ruled over by a predatory tycoon. At another it’s about the way low-status individuals – women in this case – are treated in general.

It’s not all sexual misconduct either. The Assistant makes it clear, even from the weak position of those two words on the screen in the opening credits (bottom right, the last stop on the eyes’ journey) that status bleeds into every aspect of human relations.

Take the early scene where the rookie assistant, Jane, is silently waiting for an elevator with a male co-worker. When it arrives he strides in before her because he’s the dominant individual. But then, once inside, rather than decisively hitting the button for whatever floor, he waits for her to do it, because manual work, even pushing a button, is skivvy work and she’s the skivvy.

This is a top-down sort of company run almost like a sultan’s court, complete with 21st-century versions of grand viziers, eunuchs and dancing girls, the flunkeys who dance attendance on the big man, and where everything is controlled from the centre, through a command structure radiating outwards on spokes of fear. The personal and the professional intertwine at every level.

In the past director Kitty Green has excelled at making documentaries telling a story obliquely, as in Casting JonBenet, which used a supposed casting for a film about the young life and early death of JonBenét Ramsey to tell the story of the murdered six-year-old “beauty queen” in a fresh and non-lurid way. And so of course this is not just the story of the assistant but also, tangentially, of Weinstein or at least his ilk.

We see it all through the eyes of this young, naive woman – the big man’s sofa, which periodically needs wiping down with a cleaning spray, the starlets waiting out in the lobby hoping to see the big man, the wife (possibly) arriving with the kids and dumping them on Jane so she can go shopping, safer (because older) female colleagues who roll their eyes at all of the goings-on.

Matthew Macfadyen as the head of HR
HR boss Matthew Macfadyen

Green does it all documentary style. No explanations. No voiceover. No music. As if this really were a day in the life of an intern. In a key scene that kind of says it all, Jane goes to see the head of HR to report her concerns about a very young, very pretty new hiring who has no actual office skills but is being put up at a local hotel, which the boss visits regularly. The suddenly attentive HR guy is played by Matthew Macfadyen, who puts on another of his brilliantly unctuous displays of self preservation (see Succession for more). Though he never says it out loud, his body language is shouting, “Hey, if some young girl wants to have sex with a greasy old fuck in the hope of preferment, that’s her gamble”. What he actually comes out with is a variation on the “everyone’s a grown-up” platitude.

Julia Garner plays Jane, a one-note performance in a situation where two notes would be too much, and portrays her as a young woman whose naivety is astonishing, but whose relentlessly downturned mouth suggests she’s already worked out that there’s something going on here that she doesn’t like the smell of.

“She’ll get a lot more out of it than he will… trust me,” says one old female hand to Jane at one point in this most unsentimental of sentimental educations, as yet another pretty waif waits in the lobby to be “seen” by the boss.

We never quite see the boss (played by Tony Torn), which adds to the sense of his power and mystique, and helps make the particularity more universal, though how far Kitty Green is onside with #MeToo is moot. She’s clearly made a forceful film about exploitation, but she seems more interested in power than sexualised aggression. So if liberal pieties really aren’t your thing, this refreshingly unpleasant movie might be one for you.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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