The Assistant review – understated but devastating tale of harassment

The Assistant review

Starring Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth. Directed by Kitty Green.

The ongoing fallout from the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements can still be felt today, including in the cinematic world. As Bombshell comes out for home release following its awards nominations, The Assistant finally gets a release in the UK.

The Assistant is a much less showy affair than other films on the subject of harassment. It follows an assistant called Jane over the course of one day as she deals with the indignities visited on her by her boss, an unnamed film producer.

The Assistant is the first narrative film by Kitty Green; having made two documentaries previously —Ukraine is not a Brothel and Casting JonBenet — this film is a look at the day Jane (Julia Garner) decides to raise concerns about her boss. The film is less showy than most drama films, opting for a more fly-on-the-wall style than a showy dramatic piece. Green edits, directs and writes this film in a way that compliments the simmering tension Jane feels.

Green opts for long static shots that just watch as Garner goes about her jobs; nothing creative, just an ongoing barrage of jobs that appear to be a waste of her time. There are allusions to the horrors that happen in the real world: young women coming to retrieve their missing jewellery unable to look at Jane, the constant questions of her boss’ whereabouts by his wife, the abuse piled on her from disembodied voices followed by her having to grovel in an email.

Julia Garner in The Assistant

Julia Garner in The Assistant.

Jane’s two colleagues remain silent through the abuse, offering words to put into her apologetic emails, along with judgemental looks. The closest this film gets to a big dramatic moment is when Jane goes to the head of HR (played by Matthew Macfadyen) who informs her that filing a complaint will effectively kill her career prospects.

Garner, who has received praise for her role in Ozark, is understated but quietly devastating. It’s a performance of silence, it’s not what she says but what she doesn’t, and how her face reacts with quiet resignation. She does decidedly little in the scene with Macfadyen but it’s heartbreaking to see her face as he lays out the pointlessnesses of her concerns about a new assistant.

Instead of the out-and-out in your face horrors shown in Bombshell, The Assistant opts for a much more subtle portrayal, it’s hidden behind phone calls, behind closed doors. It’s an open secret which reflects how a man like Harvey Weinstein got away with so much for so long.


Julia Garner and Matthew Macfadyen in The Assistant.

Most importantly, it is not a film about Harvey Weinstein, it’s much more universal than that. People are barely given names, no backstories, no exposition; the setting isn’t specific, it could be today or it could be twenty years ago. For Green to opt for this allows the film to talk not to a moment but to a culture of abuse that kept going for decades.

The abuse the women and men experienced and continue to experience in workplaces across the world make The Assistant somewhat a horror film, in that it portrays horrors many can relate to. How many of us have been verbally assaulted by a superior with colleagues watching? How many of us have had to keep quiet as we accept the abuse of power a boss has enjoyed?

The Assistant isn’t just a look at the film industry, it’s a look at working environments, and in the hands of Green and Garner, the film is uncomfortable enough that it should be required viewing for all bosses.


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