Today I finally caught up with The Assistant, a low-key observational drama featuring a first-rate central performance from Julia Garner as Jane, the eponymous assistant to a famous film mogul.
Said mogul is very effectively kept off-screen for the duration, though we occasionally overhear angry meetings or his furious calls, whenever he feels the need to lash out. The minutiae of Jane’s daily grind will feel familiar to anyone who has worked in the thankless role of executive assistant. Her long hours in the office are an unending blur of photocopiers, coffee machines, phone calls, furtive meals grabbed in spare seconds, and other tasks that fall well outside the parameters of her job description (including babysitting and vacuum cleaner maintenance). At the same time, she has to cover up for her boss in a way that often puts her in impossible situations – for example, when his wife calls demanding to know where he is, whilst he is “Weinsteining” the wet-behind-the-ears young woman from Idaho with no experience, that he decided to randomly hire.
Writer/director Kitty Green infuses the drama with slow-burning realism. The film industry is depicted as not remotely glamorous, and much of the gradually building despair is derived from the continuous minor acts of bullying, sexism, abuse, and humiliation. One particular incident involving a head of HR (deftly played by Matthew McFadden) who is anything but trustworthy, makes the #MeToo case with subtle but squirm-inducing believablity.
What The Assistant does best – brilliantly and depressingly – is peel back the layers behind the Weinsteins of this world. Much of what his ilk got away with (and doubtless continue to get away with) is enabled by lower level staff, who instinctively know that silent compliance is the best way to get ahead, especially when they have (unreliable) assurances they are being mentored for greater things. We are meant to feel sorry for Jane, no question. But in her own way, and despite her best intentions and crises of conscience, ultimately she is complicit.
The film certainly won’t be for everyone , but it is thought provoking, and astutely achieves what it set out to do, and as such I certainly recommend it.
UK Certificate: 15
US Certificate: R
Content warnings: Strong language.