She Said, part of a legacy of MeToo films, dramatizes the undoing of Harvey Weinstein

3 out of 5 stars

It’s a lazy but understandable impulse to label any film released after 2017 that indirectly or directly tackles sexual assault as a “MeToo” movie. Promising Young Woman, The Last Duel, Women Talking, Tàr, Bombshell and The Assistant are just a few examples of North American films that neatly fit the bill (the impact that MeToo had on other national cinemas is a whole other topic). Any films dealing with similar themes released prior to 2017 are retroactively lauded. They’re called “prescient” and “ahead of their time.” But many of those films also say “me too,” just without the hashtag connecting them to a network of trauma. 

The recent trickle of these kinds of films speaks to Hollywood’s investment in staying relevant and looking good. As many have already remarked, the involvement of Brad Pitt as the producer lends the film an uncomfortable stench. According to Angelina Jolie, her ex-husband was well aware of Weinstein’s behaviour, and yet continued working with him. The culture has changed, but opportunism may never be curbed.  

Directed by Maria Schrader, She Said dramatizes the New York Times reporting on Harvey Weinstein by journalists Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor. The film takes its time to get to Weinstein, however. Screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz introduces us to Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Kantor (Zoe Kazan) six months before they begin their investigation. We meet Twohey as she publishes her piece on Donald Trump’s treatment of women, and as Kantor covers Syrian refugees in Canada. After Bill O’Reilly is fired at Fox News, Twohey and Kantor team up to find evidence of Weinstein’s shady settlements and history of abuse. But no one wants to go on the record. If that wasn’t the only obstacle, Kantor and Twohey are offered little help from federal agencies or law enforcement. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doesn’t give records of complaints launched at specific companies (like Miramax, Weinstein’s production company), and the District Attorney offers no insight on why they dropped Ambra Battilana’s case, a model who recorded Weinstein as he groped her.   

The first hour of the film is slow. The inclusion of Trump sets the stage, but also overwhelms the film’s beginning. Uncannily voiced by SNL‘s James Austin Johnson, Trump berates Twohey during a conference call with the Times. She’s tough — that, we know. But Trump doesn’t need more airtime than he already gets. Unlike other journalism thrillers, She Said foregrounds the journalists’ domestic lives. We learn about Twohey’s postpartum depression and watch Kantor bribe her youngest with the Netflix password when a source calls her. And the sources themselves are given backstories in the form of flashbacks. Shrader’s refusal to reduce these women (the journalists and sources) to ciphers is well-intentioned, but can often weigh on the narrative.

Once the women start talking, She Said comes into its own. The scenes with Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle are highlights. Interrupting their scenes with flashbacks add little to their characterizations, however. These scenes of women sobbing and running clash with the actors’ performances, which run the emotional gamut from distrustful to hopeful, and every shade of rage in between. If only Schrader trusted them and herself enough to stay with these women as they tell their stories, a discipline exhibited beautifully by Sarah Polley in Women Talking

She Said review
Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan, Andre Braugher and Patricia Clarkson

There is a moment of startling inspiration in the film. In an experimental interlude, an NYPD-recorded conversation between Ambra Battilana and Harvey Weinstein plays over eerie shots of the camera gliding down hotel hallways. We hear his voice and imagine how many hallways have echoed with his threats and his promises of stardom. She Said hints at the female networks that kept many women safe. Morton’s Zelda Perkins recounts being told by a female colleague at the London Miramax office to wear a puffer jacket when Weinstein visited and to sit on an armchair, not on a couch next to him. It’s this effort to save other women from harm while knowing that their perpetrators rarely face real consequences that She Said movingly conveys. When the “proper channels” lead to dead-ends, survivors must dig their own. 

Unlike many procedurals, the film makes clear the kind of institutional and emotional support needed to write a story of that magnitude. The reporters’ editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) doesn’t hesitate to send Twohey or Kantor on a plane to London or L.A. to follow a lead. And both of their husbands take the lead in domestic duties without a word of protest. But even then, the paper can’t protect its sources by providing legal aid. Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd may be able to afford lawyers, but that is likely not the case for Weinstein’s ex-assistants, almost all of whom in the film signed NDAs. Shrader and Lenkiewicz are not just interested in giving a voice to women’s trauma. They want to understand why and when women speak out and why they don’t.

In the last third of the film, when the story is close to being published, Kantor asks Twohey, “What if this changes nothing?” What would be more terrifying, the possibility that things never change or that stories like theirs were never published? ■

She Said (directed by Maria Schrader)

She Said opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 18.

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