The trouble with putting a question in the title of a documentary is that it raises expectations of not just an answer, but an answer that is revelatory. Consequently, you'd expect this miniseries to discover perhaps a hidden detail of British socialite and convicted sex offender Ghislaine Maxwell's life or the inner workings of the mind of a woman who procured unsuspecting girls for her sex-offender partner. However, Who is Ghislaine Maxwell?, offers about as much insight into Maxwell as her Wikipedia entry.
Directed by Erica Gornall, this three-part miniseries shifts the focus from American financier and convicted sex offender Jeffery Epstein to Maxwell. Epstein was convicted for sex trafficking and sexually abusing minors while Maxwell was found guilty of procuring minor girls for him. Almost in tandem with the release of Who is Ghislaine Maxwell?, Maxwell has appealed her conviction. Gornall's documentary highlights Maxwell's role and attempts to unravel what motivated her to become Epstein's partner and accomplice. What emerges is a set of clichés that feels less like a credible perspective upon a complicated life, and more like speculation. For instance, there's a veiled suggestion that Maxwell's relationship with her father, British press baron Robert Maxwell, was questionable and that as a young woman, she was tasked with 'selecting' who would be allowed to meet Robert at social events. The implication is that this was a precursor to Maxwell supplying girls to Epstein. There's also a hint that despite the wealth she was born into and the elite institutions she attended, Maxwell struggled to be accepted among a certain rarefied elite set because her family lacked the kind of lineage and pedigree that is prized by the English class system. Who is Ghislaine Maxwell? struggles to establish how these details may have contributed to Maxwell playing the part she did in Epstein's scheme.
One of the challenges for Who is Ghislaine Maxwell? is the impact of hindsight. Armed with the knowledge of how Maxwell recruited girls, all her past actions seem dubious. Additionally, as part of its campaign to establish Maxwell had agency and wasn't simply Epstein's submissive sidekick, the documentary ends up demonising behavioural traits that aren't actually problematic. One speaking head tells us Maxwell was ambitious, as though that's a character flaw. Another tells us, "She was interested in sex" while someone else remembers that she was "flirty with boys". We're also told that Epstein allegedly told someone that Maxwell "had a bigger penis" than he did. There's an unwitting sheen of misogyny to these observations, which imply a dominant woman who is sexually forthright is a force of evil. While Maxwell may be ambitious, flirty with boys and a sex offender, it's entirely possible to be the first two without being the third.
In sharp contrast to the Netflix miniseries Jeffery Epstein: Filthy Rich, too many of the interviews in Who is Ghislaine Maxwell? sound like excerpts from a catty, gossip session. They often feel flimsy and tainted with prejudice. It's only after these acquaintances of Maxwell have exhausted their archive of past grudges that the documentary turns its attention to the women who came forward to expose Epstein and Maxwell. Yet despite their testimonies, it remains unclear whether Maxwell was the mastermind of the scheme or whether Epstein was the dominant partner. Neither are we left with any sense of Maxwell's personality. All we know of Maxwell is the glossy persona she presented before the public.
As it turns out, the question in the title of this documentary series ends up to be a rhetorical one. Even with the benefit of hindsight, testimonies and a life lived in the public eye, it seems no one really knows who Ghislaine Maxwell really is.
Who is Ghislaine Maxwell? is streaming on Lionsgate Play.