Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen
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The quiet power of The Assistant lies in its nuance…
Harvey Weinstein’s highly publicised outing and subsequent criminal conviction as a creepy, sociopathic sex predator is by no means a one-off. Weinstein’s man-child sexual urges, self-indulgent rages and spiteful petulance created an all-pervading fearful toxicity within the office culture at Miramax and subsequently, The Weinstein Company. That said, Weinstein is by no means the exception, his kind, his ilk extends back to the beginnings of the studio system in Hollywood.
The notorious Hollywood ‘Golden age’ agent Henry Willson (brought to wonderful life in Hollywood by Jim Parsons), used the same modus operandi with his roster of young men pursuing Hollywood stardom. Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue were clients, as were Lana Turner and Natalie Wood. Willson was known as a ‘casting couch agent’. Daryl Zanuck, former studio chief at Twentieth Century Fox would literally shut down his offices at 4pm for a daily half hour ‘auditioning’ of the latest young ingénue. His predatorial behaviour makes Weinstein look positively anaemic in comparison. Judy Garland spoke of MGM’s Louis B Mayer groping her as a young girl.
Hollywood has been rife with these individuals over the last century. Their brazen activities in satisfying their sexual predilections would often go hand in hand with bold, confrontational deal making. Thus, their myths as great producers would be solidified, categorising them as ‘movers and shakers’ or ‘Powerful men who shaped Hollywood’.
Australian director Kitty Green’s latest film takes a quietly observed and low-key look at the power dynamics in an unnamed film production company office, framing the story from the perspective of an underling.
Jane (Ozark’s Julia Garner) is a young assistant to an unseen, unnamed Weinstein-alike (though we do hear his voice over the phone as he tears strips off her for various perceived transgressions). She begins her day pre-dawn, leaving her Astoria apartment where a driver takes her to the office. First into the building, she turns on the office lights and starts the day with the first of many menial tasks: photocopying scripts, tallying her boss’s expenses, placing water bottles in meeting rooms, receiving and sorting mail and arranging her boss’s itinerary over numerous phone calls.
Jane asks work related questions of the other two male assistants in her office, though they act entitled and indifferent. Clearly, there have been many girls in the ‘assistant’ role before her, they obviously think there will be many after her. They often punt the tasks they don’t want to deal with over to her, while they slack off.
Later in the day, a young woman appears in the office reception room, stating that Jane’s boss has given her a job as an ‘assistant’ and has flown her to New York and put her up in an expensive hotel. The young woman returns to her hotel, followed quickly by Jane’s boss. His sudden absence causes disarray in the day’s schedule. Forced to rearrange meetings and make excuses to her boss’s wife, Jane’s growing unease with this behaviour escalates.
The climatic moments of this film are simple conversations where Jane decides to act, to speak up, albeit in a quiet, reserved way (Succession’s Matthew MacFadyen is terrific as a wonderfully unhelpful HR executive).
There have been reviews of this film that see the low key, observational manner as a drawback, as if this topic demands showy fireworks and a courtroom resolution where the guts of the issue can be spilled out and picked over. But that kind of bombast and catharsis is not how life really is. It is also not how these systems persist.
The quiet power of The Assistant lies in its nuance, observing a status quo that is so clearly the result of a century of powerful gatekeepers leveraging their positions to sate their own desires. Focusing on the fragility and helplessness of someone caught in the gears of that machine is what is so compelling about Kitty Green’s soft touch with the subject matter.
It’s not that the film lacks teeth, it’s that the protagonist lacks control over her situation and her inability to help the litany of women she sees being used and abused by her boss. All Jane can do is: speak up.
Now available to rent via Foxtel On Demand. Available to Rent On Demand from 24 June via multiple platforms