Saturday 17 December 2022

The good fight: "She Said"

She Said sets itself a tricky task of information management. It's telling a story you may already know (how dogged New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor helped break the story of Harvey Weinstein's offences), and - within that narrative - having to revisit a clutch of grim murmurings that had been circulating within the industry for several decades; furthermore, these are stories that hardly make for comfortable or cheering multiplex entertainment. There is, of course, Oscar-winning precedent in the form of 2015's Spotlight, which in its sober, buttoned-down way suggested how stories of sexual abuse might be brough to wider attention. A prologue establishes the stakes: here, our heroines (played by Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan) witness a series of exposes of Presidential candidate Donald Trump's less than presidential behaviour go unheeded by large swathes of the American electorate. After that punch in the gut, it's back to the daily business of gathering stories, and with those, renewed momentum. This time, those testifying are altogether more illustrious (and so have either more or less to lose). In the course of the film, we will hear once again from Rose McGowan (represented here by a vocal impersonator), Ashley Judd (playing herself, and making the pointed comment that she just wants to get back to work), Gwyneth Paltrow (represented by her assistant, and a rubber ring in an empty pool) and the model Ambra Gutierrez (a scared voice on an actual piece of evidence, and the movie knows there is power in hearing Weinstein damn himself with his own controlling words). It's old news, in so many ways, but it also suddenly feels as if this case is still being litigated, as several additional charges against Weinstein hang in the balance, and Trump clears his throat ahead of one more grab at absolute power.

As a film, She Said is heading in one direction only, but writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz and director Maria Schrader make individual scenes and interactions come to renewed, complicated life. They know, for one, that a large part of Twohey and Kantor's work on this story was a regathering of trust that had previously been ripped up and scattered to the wind. Time and again, we witness one of Weinstein's victims step forward, see the forces rising up to oppose them, and either hold firm or retreat nervily. Mulligan and Kazan are chiefly employed as representatives of good journalism: sensitive, empathetic women who made the people they were talking to feel comfortable, especially upon venturing into uncomfortable conversational territory. There's scant ego in these performances; both leads recognise their roles are mostly reactive, and set about drawing information from eminent co-stars in much the same way Twohey and Kantor sourced the most damning intel from reluctant interviewees. In an anonymous London café, an electrifying Samantha Morton holds court as Weinstein's London PA Zelda Perkins: from just five minutes in her presence, you take away a sense of just what Perkins had to tamp down, blank out or overlook to get through the day when Harvey came to town, and also what she had to do to walk away with her head held high. (Morton's acutely human achievement is all the greater for coming at a point where this script is at its most technical, tied up with what people signed, and why those initial investigations ran cold.) As Miramax staffer Laura Madden, Jennifer Ehle opens up the inquiry as to what exactly went down in the Weinstein hotel suites (and the collateral damage incurred); the presence of Zach Grenier - cast against type as a useful nail in the Weinstein coffin - indicates the movie intends to fight the same fight as the Trump-baiting The Good Fight. Schrader, an actress-turned-director herself, gets rewardingly close to her performers; she senses that actors may be the best placed folk to revisit these stories. Very different personalities; similar, damning accounts.

There are, however, stretches where She Said feels more prosaic than inspired. There is - doubtless because there was - a lot of Twohey and Kantor digging, and a passing sketch of the journalists' homelives (good men holding the baby, daughters to be protected); Ronan Farrow's rival New Yorker article is seized upon as a device to make a narrative clock tick louder, only to be completely forgotten about come the final act. Lenkiewicz isn't averse to the odd shortcut or shorthand: "It feels like we're so close!," Kantor gasps, as we enter that home straight. (This may be a consequence of taking reporters for protagonists, but the conversations between the journalists - and the ensemble extends to typically solid work from Patricia Clarkson and Andre Braugher as senior NYT editors - sometimes veers into blunt-sounding editorial: "Can you imagine how many Harvey Weinsteins are out there every day?") In its less imaginative spots, my mind shuffled across to a film that got a little lost in the Covid shuffle: Kitty Green's The Assistant, a Weinstein-influenced drama that kept its boogeyman offscreen, the better to monitor his impact on those working around him. Green took a more abstract approach to this story (and stories like these), relying on, say, ambient sound leaking through too-thin office walls, an analogue to all those half-heard, half-verified mutterings that circulated about the monstrous Harvey. Yet she got to something systemic, something rotten in the heart of our towering corporate power structures: her villain could have been any tyrant working out of any office. She Said stands as a careful briefing in how it was, as investigated and crosschecked by two women who were able to maintain some distance from the worst of the abuses: it's a decent movie, in every sense, not least because it indicates the studio system is ready to take a long, hard, generally unsparing look at itself. But The Assistant, a quietly brilliant movie, got to how all this felt - and that, as the supporting characters in She Said could testify, isn't just unforgettable. It's what we can't forget if we want to prevent the atrocities of a Weinstein from ever happening again.

She Said is now playing in selected cinemas. 

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