Depraved behaviour, with the Harvey Weinstein trial in New York seeing the movie mogul jailed for 23 years, a second trial soon to be held in Los Angeles on new charges, The Assistant is a perfectly timed, highly topical study of the extremes of misogyny in the work place.
Anybody who has worked in an office knows the hot house weeds that can grow there, office parties and all. For some who work in open or roomed offices, the width of their social contacts can be few, choices for partners, fewer. I have worked in only three offices in my career, two a short time before I was a student at college and university, both travel agents free of leering or men teasing females, although in the first the addled alcoholic manager was having an affair with a very pretty member of staff, she, no doubt, convinced in time she could cure him of his malady.
The third office was later in my vocation, the BBC. Life there was altogether different. Sexual liaisons were the stuff of canteen gossip. (Lord Reith, stern son of the manse, the first director general of the corporation, set the standard. He walked in on a couple hard at it on his desk in flagrante dilecto.) I shall never forget the senior BBC colleague who played me for a patsy, asking me to meet a talent agent over dinner because he had done it three years running and was bored. The agent turned out to be a scumbag who offered hookers to BBC producers in return for slots on shows. The jolt of that experience taught me to have female colleagues always attend my theatre and film interviews and auditions when casting, and indeed, that policy proved wise when working in the sleaze capital of America, Los Angeles. But that’s another story … for a book.
The Assistant is an impressive study of the culture of silence surrounding daily workplace abuse. Julia Garner excels at instilling a sense of dread as she presents each successive incident in a story which, unsurprisingly, ends not with a satisfying solution to the drama that unfolds, but with the depressing realisation what she witnesses and senses won’t be fixed next day.
The Assistant is a slow burn, meaning you should watch ever glance, observe every body movement, every speech inflection riveting story. In other words, it about adult affairs.
The story appears simple but is cluttered with sophisticated twists and turns, some barely visible, some hinted. Ingenue Jane (Julia Garner) takes a job as the assistant to a high-powered film company executive – who could that be? – after she graduates from college. She is looking forward to the experience and making new friends.
She leaves her Astoria, Queens apartment and arrives at the studio’s loft-like Soho offices, all under the cover of darkness. We see her do all the normal things a newbie does when starting in a new job. What’s the first task she is asked to do? She makes coffee. She gets her boss’ coffee. She makes small talk introductions with passing staff. She makes photo copies. She collates photo copies.
She takes care to make sure everything is right when his male assistants (John Orsini, Noah Robbins) come in at 8am, and the executive comes in at 10am. One of her tasks is to clean “stains” on her boss’ casting couch; it takes a while for her to understand what kind of stains they are. She picks up stray earrings and hair bands left by “visitors”, again, not putting two-and-two together. In a clever visual tease, we never see the chief executive she works for, but we hear him, mostly in half-heard conversations on the phone or on the other side of the wall from Jane’s desk.
Her boss is a boor and bully, bastard is an understatement. He has no compunction over hurling curses at his staff or throwing things against a wall if angry. When the executive’s wife (Stéphanye Dussud) calls in to complain that her husband froze all of her credit cards, and Jane says she’ll try to help, the exec berates her for interfering in his personal life, saying “all your good for is ordering salad.” Jane’s first real test of mental strength is presented to her. What does she do? Smile meekly and carry on? Respond with a similar insult? Rebel by walking out? In those situations there is always a decision to weigh in the balance, job experience on your curriculum vitae, or potential reputation as a troublemaker.
She does what most young women would do new to the experience. She frets. Her male assistants help her compose an e-mail apology. This seems to sort things momentarily, but her boss is quick to exploit her reserve. She then has to babysit his kids as he screams out his nanny Sasha (Juliana Canfield) for bringing them to his office.
During this day, Jane begins to free herself of inhibition. She is uncomfortable with what she has to do for her boss. She gets a call from someone who will “visit” with him on his trip to Los Angeles for a premiere, and she has to make sure this woman knows how to get to the hotel. Traces of corrupt Weinstein begin to pile up.
A young attractive woman named Sienna (Kristine Froseth) comes in to sign papers to be a new assistant. Everyone seems to know why she’s there, with the requisite winks and nudges, except for Jane. She makes sure Sienna gets to the hotel where the boss has rented a room before it dawns on her why Sienna is there. This upsets her, and she decides to talk over her feelings with her colleague Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), who more or less dismisses her “feeling” that Sienna was only hired for sex, and not-so-subtly tells her that hundreds of people would love to have her job.
Chastened and miserable, she returns to her office to put in a late night filing files and filling envelopes while her boss is there entertaining another young actress named Ruby (McKenzie Leigh). Things move from puzzlement, to curiosity, to morality and finally decision time. As Jane follows her daily routine, she grows increasingly aware of the insidious abuse that threatens every aspect of her position.
Written and directed by Kitty Green, I was pleased to see much of the film is wordless, that’s cinema after all, if you can manage it without losing your audience’s attention. There some interesting music from composer Tamar-kali, and lots of background ambient noise. That’s a tough call for a young actress who has not acquired a repertory of expressions. Nevertheless, Garner is superb at conveying her character’s increasing concern, degradation and inner conflict.
I enjoyed Matthew Macfadyen’s sly performance, his misogyny there for us to see, his testosterone healthy as he attempts to show concern. After he listens to Jane’s anxieties he tells her there are four hundred people who would kill for her job. He has their ‘resumés’ on his desk – and so in good male fashion, he blackmails her into submission.
Julia Garner is in virtually every scene in this film. To the quick study she might seem perpetually glum, but I think she was directed that way to force us to read her face in our search for her reaction to events. When she gets the one crumb of praise from her boss, she starts thinking things are looking up. If you watch her face intently you can detect her thinking, this shit might be worth it. We’ve all been there, we’ve all done that.
There was one memorable line I recognised from the Weinstein affair. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” says Wilcock as Jane walks out the door. “You’re not his type,” he adds, dryly. That pretty much wraps up how so many sleazy executives get away with their behavior.
A true anecdote: in the aftermath of the bank crash, a madame, interviewed in a documentary, was asked how she managed to run her New York brothel when people were going bust. “Oh, no problem. My clients are nearly all bankers and high finance guys. I have a lunch session arranged for their three hour ‘business lunches”.
- Star Rating: Four stars
- Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh
- Director: Kitty Green
- Writer: Kitty Green
- Cinematographer: Michael Latham
- Composer: Tamar-kali
- Adult rating: 15
- Duration: 1 hour, 27 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?