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- Reviewed from the 2022 London Film Festival.
In a luxury suite, a robe is discarded on a bed; a pair of cheap white plimsolls lie discarded on a plush carpet. In voiceover, women describe their experiences of sexual harassment, assault and rape in encounters with film producer Harvey Weinstein. Sometimes faltering, mediated by phone, or telling a story they have tried to tell many times before, women’s voices are clear: this is the truth, and something must change.
An adaptation of journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s account of their investigation into Weinstein for the New York Times, She Said is a bold and vital film. Early on, Times editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) asks why sexual violence is “so hard to address”; the film sets out to answer that question, evoking the claustrophobic conspiracy of the systems of power – and the journalists, film professionals, lawyers and accountants who uphold them – that silence survivors.
That it does so by centring women’s experiences is an extraordinary achievement. Natasha Braier’s cinematography is intimate when women recall trauma, but never invasive. Many of the survivors mentioned in the film do not appear onscreen at all. Rather, we watch Kantor and Twohey as they listen to women speaking, which provides the leads with scope for delicate performances. Where Kazan is hopeful and just the right amount of naïve as Jodi (“What do you mean, I’m not intimidating?” she asks her colleague in a rare moment of humour), Carey Mulligan is self-assured and cynical as Megan. Alongside dialogue and voiceover, She Said maximises the dramatic possibilities of mundane sonic elements, with phones vibrating in the night, and text messages asserting a sudden ‘ping’ to curtail the anxious crescendo of the score.
Some women, including actress Ashley Judd, appear as themselves; in one chilling scene, as a disembodied camera advances eerily down an empty hotel corridor, we hear Ambra Battilana Gutierrez’s covert recording of an encounter with Weinstein on the sound track. Blending dramatic and documentary elements, in a film about believing women, risks creating tension between fiction and truth, but in She Said it just about works to bolster the film’s authenticity. An underlying narrative about self-sacrifice is less successful, though. As Kantor and Twohey struggle to separate work from home, their daughters become proxies for all the would-be survivors they want to keep safe from harm. Twohey encouraging survivors to speak out so that “together we can […] protect women in the future” warrants at least some interrogation: it’s a proposition that burdens survivors with going public with their trauma to fix a world they did not break. And offscreen, recent accusations against Brad Pitt, one of the film’s producers, point to its unfortunate entanglement in the system it critiques.
But She Said remains a call to arms in the struggle against patriarchy, and suggests that both journalism and cinema make a difference to our lives. For as the camera lingers on the dreadful scenes of an abuser’s hotel room, women’s voices fill the space he once inhabited. Survivors become bigger, louder, and more powerful, with their own enduring cinematic legacy.
► She Said is in UK cinemas from 25 November.