Then Playing — Emma.; The Assistant; Swallow

Emma. (Autumn de Wilde, 2020). Director Autumn de Wilder and screenwriter Eleanor Catton bring a touch of the rambunctious to this adaption of Jane Austen’s novel about sprightly busybody Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy). There’s no wholesale reinvention of the story, nor introduction of elements particular anachronistic to era. Instead, there’s simply an attempt to goose the story to greater liveliness in its spirit. Visually and in most elements of the film’s craft, it works nicely, with the bright costumes by Alexandra Byrne meriting special commendation. The performances in Emma. are another matter, occasionally wandering into overly broad gestures that can slip into the cartoonish. Taylor-Joy is consistently strong, through, winningly enveloping her bold strokes with abundant onscreen charisma that performs the alchemy of transforming fuss into feeling.

The Assistant (Kitty Green, 2020). A young aspiring filmmaker named Jane (Julia Garner), fresh out of college, works as an assistant at a film production company presided over by a bullying mogul. Over the course of a single day, only a few weeks into her tenure at the company, she performs tedious tasks and becomes increasingly unnerved by the abhorrent behavior she’s tangentially privy to, including the hiring of a young woman (Kristine Froseth) who’s clearly meant to be a handy sexual plaything for the boss. Carrying obvious echoes of Harvey Weinstein’s chronic abuses during his decades as a indie-film power broker, The Assistant is queasily effective at depicting workplace toxicity and the resigned enabling that allows it to persist. Writer-director Kitty Green is measured and firm in her depiction, never allowing the film to get mired in exploitative details even as it makes the infractions against decency powerfully, painfully clear. With intense subtlety, Garner shows the pain her character experiences as disillusionment erodes her sense of well-being.

Swallow (Carlo Mirabella-Davis, 2020). Newlywed Hunter (Haley Bennett) is adjusting to a life of privilege with her husband, Richie (Austin Stowell), a freshly promoted executive in his family business. Left alone in a lavish house, and clearly feeling awkward in circles of refinement that feel foreign to her, Hunter starts ingesting objects that aren’t meant for human consumption, such as a marble, a thumbtack, and a battery. Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis keeps the story firmly tethered to believable drama but frames the film with the looming danger of a horror film. Mirabella-Davis has a deep fascination with textures (the ravishingly tactile cinematography is by Katelin Arizmendi) that calls to mind the work David Cronenberg, and Swallow sometimes comes across as an extension of that august filmmaker’s recurring theme of a body at war with itself. Bennett is exceptional in the leading role, particularly when the narrative starts revealing the dark secrets in her character’s history.

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