Latest film releases: The Assistant, Ema and Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy

Damon Smith reviews the latest releases to watch at home while cinemas are closed, including The Assistant, a discomfiting study of psychology and harassment in the workplace

Jon Orsini, Julia Garner and Noah Robbins in The Assistant

THE ASSISTANT (15, 87 mins) Drama. Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth. Director: Kitty Green

SHOT over the course of one long day in the offices of a New York film production company, The Assistant is a discomfiting study of psychological warfare and harassment in the modern workplace.

Writer-director Kitty Green's impressive narrative feature debut unfolds through the occasionally teary eyes of one female graduate, who is five weeks into her thankless role and desperate to cling on to it.

Julia Garner delivers a riveting, quietly devastating performance as the mentally and physically exhausted title character, who suspects unconscionable behaviour behind closed doors but has nowhere to turn to expose abuses of power.

She is repeatedly berated by her boss for threatening to dismantle the wall of silence that encloses the office then cleverly encouraged with one curt email that reads: "I'm tough on you because I'm gonna make you great".

Collusion between characters is conveyed in terrified glances. Green's lean script employs minimal dialogue to infer the sickening imbalance of power, such as when Garner's lackey leaves the office while her boss conducts a late-night casting session with an actress (Mackenzie Leigh) and a female executive in the lift offers these meagre words of comfort: "Don't worry, she'll get more out of it than he will."

Jane (Garner) arrives bleary-eyed before dawn to manage the diary of her omnipotent boss, who is heard but not seen.

She cleans, photocopies, fields a barrage of telephone calls from his irate wife and steadfastly fills a metal medicine cabinet with 10mcg prescription injections of Alprostadil for erectile dysfunction.

Two nameless male assistants (Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins), operating in the other half of the office, silently monitor Jane's actions.

When a young woman named Sienna (Kristine Froseth) from Boise, Idaho, arrives unannounced for a non-existent assistant's role, Jane spirits her away to a nearby hotel.

Soon after, production executives Max (Alexander Chaplin) and Donna (Dagmara Dominczyk) joke that the boss is probably at the hotel too and Jane hurriedly arranges a confidential meeting with human resources manager Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen).

During their stilted conversation, Jane explains that she hopes to be a film producer one day.

"So why are you in here trying to throw it all away?" asks Wilcock coldly. "I've got 400 resumes teed up for your position alone."

Absorbing the threat, Jane agrees to forget the matter and prepares to leave.

"I don't think you have anything to worry about. You're not his type," casually remarks Wilcock.

The Assistant hints at unspeakable horrors within the framework of a mundane working day.

Our sympathy is firmly tethered to Garner's dreamer, who wrestles with her culpability as a silent witness.

Through Green's unflinching lens, power corrupts absolutely and the truth only sets you free when you have the money and connections to wilfully distort it.

:: Released: May 1 (streaming on Amazon Prime Video, BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Sky Store, Virgin Media)

RATING: ****



EMA (15, 107 mins) Drama/Romance. Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Cristian Suarez, Giannina Fruttero. Director: Pablo Larrain.

CHILEAN film-maker Pablo Larrain, director of Jackie starring Natalie Portman, returns home for a blistering character study anchored by an incendiary lead performance from Mariana Di Girolamo.

She plays dancer Ema, who is a force of nature in the city of Valparaiso.

With bleached blonde hair and full mastery over her body, Ema knows how to exploit her smouldering sexuality to draw every appreciative eye in the room.

When the fate of her seven-year-old adopted son Polo (Cristian Suarez) hangs in the balance, Ema manipulates everyone around her to reclaim the boy including her fiery-tempered choreographer husband, Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal).

On May 1, lead actor Di Girolamo introduces a free virtual premiere of the film on MUBI followed by an exclusive pre-recorded Q&A.

The film will be available to stream free for 24 hours following the premiere.

:: Released: May 1 (streaming on MUBI)

DIANA KENNEDY: NOTHING FANCY (Certificate TBC, 82 mins) Documentary. Director: Elizabeth Carroll.

BORN and raised in Loughton, Essex, chef and cookbook author Diana Kennedy is widely regarded as the world's foremost authority on Mexican cooking.

In 1974, she designed and built an ecologically sustainable home in Zitacuaro, Michoacan, long before it was fashionable.

She recycles rainwater, draws power from the sun and grows her own vegetables, coffee and corn.

Documentary film-maker Elizabeth Carroll celebrates the enduring appealing of the 92-year-old British trailblazer, who gives short shrift to anyone who doesn't recycle and was decorated with an Order of the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican government in 1982.

:: Released: May 1 (streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft Store, Sky Store, Virgin Media)

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