Review: The Assistant

I’ve reviewed a few films on this blog, but I never thought I’d be adding one to the ‘staying in’ category until 2020 arrived with its global pandemic, lockdowns, and cinema closures! I was recently sent a preview link for The Assistant, which is written and directed by Kitty Green and is about an ambitious young woman (played by Julia Garner) working for a powerful film producer. The film was described to me as being “inspired by true stories of workplace abuse and exploitation, an issue which is unfortunately still prevalent in today’s society,” and the trailer looked intriguing so I thought I’d give it a go.

The movie takes place within a single workday, giving us a window into the world of this lowly assistant and her unnamed unseen boss. Her commute is long and she’s the first in the office, still tired. She tidies and cleans before others arrive, before it’s light outside, and just about manages to grab some breakfast before the main part of the working day begins. This introduction means that we come into her world already knowing her place in it, and the opening scenes perfectly set the tone for the rest of the film; slow and careful, leaving it up to the audience to read into the details.

As someone who has worked as a PA/EA, watching the main character organising flights and hotels, photocopying, printing, greeting visitors, I could see that she’s clearly good at her job and enjoys being efficient and useful. As in any role like this, on some days there are many stressful moments and we soon start to see that her role has a lot of those too. We also very much notice her boss as, despite remaining unseen, his impact on the workplace is soon evident.

I always find it hard to write film reviews that don’t contain spoilers, but especially so with something that isn’t fast paced action or comedy. Therefore, I’m afraid I’m going to have to quote others who are much better at it! My husband described The Assistant as “much better than Bitter Wheat” (a recent West End production which tackled the same subject matter, but not terribly well), which is in part because you never see the movie producer. From what Green does show, and through Garner’s performance, we see that everyone is complicit and it’s obvious why he gets away with behaviour that is so very inappropriate. The way he treats his assistant is subtly manipulative; anger on the phone is followed by a flash of kindness in an email. In his review for The Guardian, Mark Kermode says: “All the more powerful for its understated tone, this low-key piece packs a hefty punch as it exposes the web of silence that enabled a very modern horror story.”

If you’re after a slow yet compelling movie which almost demands ‘reading’, like a good novel, The Assistant is definitely worth checking out. One rather strange thing that I took away from viewing this at home, during lockdown, was that it was weirdly nice to see an ordinary day at an office. However, I am extremely thankful that I have never worked in one quite like that!

The Assistant was released across digital platforms on 1st May 2020.

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