The Assistant

I am a great fan of Julia Garner who plays Ruth in the mesmerising Ozark (still haven’t quite managed to finish series 3 – there’s too much to do in lockdown!). So I am intrigued to see her starring in a new film, billed as a ‘thriller/drama’ launched this week on Curzon Home Cinema.

Jane is the eponymous assistant to a movie mogul in New York. The film is ‘a day in the life of’ and we meet her as she sets off in the dark by uber from her clapperboard house in the suburbs and arrives at work, switches on the lights, and prepares for the day. She is not unlike Ruth physically which is rather unnerving – same hair and same dowdy dress sense – not at all the glamourpuss you would expect to fill such an important role. Or perhaps she is exactly the type, her very unattractiveness and poor clothes leaving her invisible to the roving eye of her boss.

It is soon clear that we are in a successful production company, despite its aging technology and rather old-fashioned décor. Jane’s boss, cleverly never revealed in person, is always either on the phone or behind a closed door, shouting with anger or laughter or – perhaps  – emitting orgasmic groans, depending on who is in the room. When he’s out at meetings, Jane has to clear up after him – rescuing abandoned earrings from the floor, scrubbing stains from the sofa, arranging his incredible array of drugs in his drawer and disposing of his syringes. Yuk! 

She also has to prepare his health shakes and take abusive phone calls from his wife, comfort the nanny and look after his kids. All the while her two preppy office-mates, seemingly cocksure young men, are quick to delegate the calls from the wife to her, chuck balled-up paper – reminiscent of bread-throwing at college? – to attract her attention and complain about the sandwiches. Satisfyingly they are not immune to their boss’s ire and take sadistic pleasure in helping her write grovelling apologies for her failings; they have learned the hard way. Her fragility and eagerness to please is underscored by her pathetic gratitude at the boss’s reply to one such apology – he says he knows he’s hard on her because she’s good, and that she could be great.

There is a palpable sense of fear lurking in all corners of this office. There is much skulking in the kitchen, whispered conversations: no one is safe from the boss’s whims, his unreasonable demands, his failure to turn up to scheduled meetings and there’s a tired acceptance of his insatiable womanising. It’s a perfect storm of a bullying culture.

But Jane, only two months into the job, is an innocent. She has hopes of being a producer and is working her way up the ladder; she averts her eyes to the goings-on until they are popped wide open by the arrival of a teenage waitress from Idaho, purportedly to be a new assistant, who is being put up in the Mark, one of New York’s finest hotels.

In a telling scene she decides to go to HR, where Matthew Macfadyen, playing the oleaginous manager, accuses her of jealousy, dismissing her with the final insult, ‘don’t worry, you’re not his type’. Garner’s inability to stand up in the face of further degradation frm the HR department is harrowingly understandable.

Kitty Green, more famous for making documentaries, has filmed this very much in the style of that genre. There is little speech, the whirring of the photocopier, the tapping of keyboards, the murmur of conversations  and the ringing of phones constitute the largest part of the screenplay, punctuated by Jane’s quiet efficiency as she copes with everything that’s thrown at her, albeit with a flutter of fear and the occasional grimace. 

It is a brave film, the first #metoo movie, but not really a thriller as billed.  There’s plenty of tension, yes, but somehow you are pretty sure you know how it will end. Its allure lies in the terrible truth that this sort of sexual harassment goes on everywhere and is condoned and accepted because the boss holds all the cards. Until he doesn’t and ends up in Rikers. At some point the Janes of this world are courageous enough to speak up. Then the drama begins. 

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2 Responsesso far.

  1. Josa Keyes says:

    I know all about bullying HR! Goodness it can be unpleasant. Very common in the magazine houses of my middle years. I would like to see this film.

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