Director: Maria Schrader
Writer: Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, Patricia Clarkson, Ashley Judd, Andre Braugher
Two of this year’s films about women grappling with the anguish and aftermath of assault have titles that are precise, pointed and incredibly poignant. With She Said and Women Talking, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, the otherwise ordinary act of women having a conversation is the stuff of empire-toppling significance, an accurate reassessment following the #MeToo reckoning of 2017. For too long, wrongdoing has thrived on silence. Now, two-word titles are enough to allude to a movement encompassing decades worth of women’s stories.
For all its defiant urging to speak, She Said, based on New York Times’ journalists Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor’s investigation into Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of predation and abuse, is largely quiet and restrained. It’s not self-congratulatory in its approach. In fact, there’s some irony to how a film chronicling the producer’s takedown is the kind of end-of-year, awards-buzzy prestige film that he himself backed with regularity in the past. However, She Said avoids sensationalism even as it accrues powerful sentiment. While this makes for a sensitive and thoughtful cinematic handling of a film about sexual assault, the lack of urgency results in less-than-compelling movie about investigative journalism.
As Megan (a cool-headed Carey Mulligan) and Jodi (a wide-eyed, earnest Zoe Kazan) work to piece together a history of Weinstein’s crimes, much of their lives and time are also dictated by working-mom guilt, postpartum depression and domestic duties. Motherhood informs their vocation, even as it eats into it. They have a lot to lose if they pursue this line of investigation, as they’re repeatedly warned. However, as two women hoping to build a better world for their young children, there’s much more at stake if they decide not to do so. Even as their work spills into their home life, they’re reminded of how Weinstein used professional spaces as a hunting ground for his personal depravities. The film’s sprawling depiction of family life also extends to the journalists’ sources who must sometimes grapple with the heartbreaking realisation that their spouses were either predators or prey in this large, tangled web. Weinstein himself is repeatedly referenced as using his wife and children as shields for his crimes.
Some of She Said’s most striking moments are also its most sorrowful — a young girl running down the street sobbing; Megan walking home alone in the dark as a broadcast of Trump’s presidential victory plays as voiceover a short while after she reported allegations of his sexual misconduct. Later, audio of Weinstein badgering a woman in his hotel room plays to a montage of empty hallways outside, haunting visuals that reinforce how lonely it must have been to cry out for help in an industry that trades on no one listening. Another montage of half-eaten room service and a bathrobe lying on a hotel room bed makes you wonder if this is what the survivor remembers of that day, if this is the way trauma sticks in the mind. The film wisely doesn’t depict any of the assaults. The testimony is harrowing enough, with one particularly devastating scene featuring Samantha Morton as a former Miramax assistant.
Yet as a film about the rigours of investigative journalism, She Said is lacking. The timeline of Jodi and Megan’s investigation isn’t established, nor is it clear how long it took them to conduct their reporting from start to finish. The film’s initial stretch condenses a long and painstaking process into a brisk chain of events, diminishing the effort involved. When emails in the book She Said, a breakdown of the journalist’s methods, are converted into phone calls in the movie, the cautiousness, trepidation and thought that goes into crafting an carefully-worded message is lost, replaced by words that seem to come too easily in the face of tough stakes. The idea is better served through face-to-face conversations with sources, in which Jodi and Megan must weigh their words carefully and attempt to read between the lines of the responses they get. Weinstein’s hiring of Israeli intelligence agency Black Cube to hamper the Times’ investigation is limited to a single scene in which Jodi is struck by sudden fear that a car might be trailing her down a public street at night. A sense of urgency comes only towards the end, when the reporters fear that Ronan Farrow might break the story first, or that in giving Weinstein too much time to respond to the allegations, they might be giving him leeway to browbeat their sources instead.
In putting sincerity first, She Said loses some of its sharpness. Even as bits of the film sag, it continues operating from a place of empathy, to both its credit and detriment. Good intentions do not always translate into gripping cinema.