The Assistant (2019)

As one of the lucky few to go into quarantine with a reasonably sized abode – and no kids – I spent the early days of the pandemic not panicking, but carefully plotting out my upcoming pop culture consumption. Now would be the perfect opportunity to do a deeper dive into, say, the back catalogue of Mikio Naruse while finding more time to read.

As it turns out, these goals were wildly optimistic. Teaching from home proved far more onerous than expected, and my pop culture diet consisted largely of reality TV and a newfound board game obsession (hence the comparative desert that this site has transformed into). But I did manage to get through a couple books over the period, including Ronan Farrow’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning (sort of) nonfiction novel Catch and Kill, which chronicled both Farrow’s investigation of Harvey Weinstein and the associated obstacles thrown up by a resistant system dependent on power.

Which brings me to The Assistant. Superlative documentarian Kitty Green here helms her first narrative feature centring around Harvey Weinstein. Again…sort of. The Assistant refers to the film’s protagonist, Jane (Julia Garner), who we follow through a day working for a legally- and narratively-obscured Weinstein-analogue. The forbidding workplace environment and unforgiving expectations set an ominous tone, soon – inevitably – reinforced by the realisation that Jane’s boss’s arrangement with another pretty young assistant in his care is far from fatherly.

The Assistant aligns with Green’s interests as filmmaker as evidenced by Ukraine Is Not a Brothel and Casting JonBenet – specifically, the abuse of power and the exploitation of women – while reiterating the chilly aesthetic that defined the latter film. As a portrayal of an unwelcome work environment, the film is spot on, expertly conveying the discomfort born from feeling disconnected from an welcoming culture. Jane’s coworkers are distant and intimidating, only showing any signs of care when they aid her in writing apologetic emails to Wein- uh, her boss. The film’s centrepiece is a poisonous encounter with a HR rep (Matthew Macfadyen), who performs sympathy for her concerns until it’s clear she has no evidence to back them up.

But I can’t help but feel like the film could’ve done something more. The single day narrative feels like an obstacle more than anything, necessitating too many scenes of office monotony that erode the intended, ominous effect through repetition. And playing coy with the Weinstein references – obscured movie posters, his facsimile never actually appearing on screen – while surely justified legally, feels like a misstep. All the writing about Weinstein asserts that his bellicose personality plays a large part in his intimidating reputation, and that’s almost entirely absent here (though it’s certainly implied by the pressure chamber nurtured by his employees).

The Assistant could’ve been bolder. A less direct connection to Weinstein would’ve allowed for better interrogation of how power structures are tied up with masculine cults of personality, or perhaps offered surprises for viewers not expecting this kind of narrative. (To be fair, Green clearly isn’t interested in surprising her audience, but it might have helped alleviate the tonal flatness of the film.) It also feels like the big question here – how complicit is Jane if she chooses to keep working for this man? – is ultimately flattened out by the short time span, and could’ve been better articulated otherwise.

Quibbles aside, The Assistant is an important corrective to bombastic Hollywood takes on this sort of storyline (looking at you, Bombshell), in its refusal to amp up the drama or sweatily depict its abuse. It’s certainly going to be better than the inevitable Weinstein biopic we’ll get in a few years when Harvey runs out of money to keep paying his lawyers. But it feels like a step sideways for Green rather than a step forward, and I’m hoping that the ambition that made Ukraine such an exciting debut is present in her next film, narrative or otherwise.

3 stars

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