Australian director Kitty Green’s fourth feature may be her first fiction film – after documentaries Casting JonBenet, Ukraine is Not A Brothel and The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul – but it is undoubtedly rooted in reality. Quietly raging, The Assistant is a bleakly precise study of complicity in workplace abuse.
Movie producer assistant Jane’s (Julia Garner) day starts in the bleary early hours, hunched over the office kitchen sink as she crams a bowl of children’s cereal before her colleagues begin filing in, the multicoloured sugary loops the only object resembling life amongst the interminable drizzle of office grey. It’s almost as if she is embarrassed to be seen to be eating at work despite the implicit requirement to be the first one in and the last one out, a weak display of basic human need.
From these opening moments, Garner dominates the screen, her spiky, fragile performance a conduit for The Assistant’s glassy, emotionally drained tone. The camera often observes her from a distance voyeuristically framing her in doorways as if leering at her in her few private moments between mundane tasks. Her daily drudgery is seasoned with the bro-ish antics of her pecksniff male colleagues who pressure her to take difficult phone calls while they goof off.
The righteous anger that visibly, almost tearfully seethes just below the surface is an indicator of the repressed dissent and internalised loathing that women must routinely put themselves through in the workplace if they are to survive let alone thrive. Every interaction with her colleagues is met with either profound indifference or casual contempt – her desk mates lob balls of paper at her to get her attention; workers mindlessly leave their coffee mugs for her to wash up; another passes her her coat to hold without so much as a glance.
The nexus of this toxicity, however, is her Weinstein-esque boss, who like some sexually-predatory Voldemort is only ever referred to as ‘Him’. Part of The Assistant’s brilliance is that instead of being a direct victim of His implied abuses of power, Jane is put in the position of unwilling accomplice. Those ‘difficult phone calls’ that her weasely colleagues force her to take are from His wife (Stéphanye Dussud) demanding to know where Jane’s boss is while he is presumably conducting affairs with young employees. Jane’s refusal to lie about him being in a meeting then results in an extracted written apology for ‘letting him down’.
The longest conversation Jane has all day is with HR manager Wilcock (a brilliantly insidious Matthew Macfadyen) – whose open face and welcoming demeanour belie venom – when she decides to report her suspicions about his abusive behaviour. Wilcock’s unconcealed threat to her career is a masterclass in how power uses systemised fear and pseudo-rationality to maintain itself. Her late-night exit from the office, joylessly munching on a scone while listening to her dad tell her over the phone that she’ll succeed if she just sticks at it is a final, heartbreaking proof of the banal and invisible cruelty of such power.
The Assistant is available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema from 1 May.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm