In The Assistant, Matthew Macfadyen is the key ingredient that makes the film’s best scene so chilling. This is the first in a series of For Your Consideration essays looking back at the best performances and crafts of 2020.
Read our interview with Kitty Green on The Assistant.
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Up until recently, I only really knew Matthew Macfadyen as the Mr. Darcy who was good but not as good as Colin Firth. Now the world is blessed to be experiencing the Matthew Macfadyessaince we never knew we needed. The actor has found his groove as a middle-aged character actor — not the romantic leading man Hollywood initially pegged him as. Succession brought him back into the public consciousness in a big way, but he’s had a great 2020 besides. Macfadyen excels at playing quiet and unassuming men who hold more power than they seem to on first glance, which made him a perfect choice to play a pathetic posh guy who ends up stealing a million pounds from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in the miniseries Quiz.
Then, there’s his one-scene wonder in Kitty Green’s The Assistant, where he plays an HR consultant who appears mild mannered, kind, and helpful until you realise that he’s doing his part to cover up sexual abuse in the workplace. This scene, which takes place 50 minutes into the film, is probably my scene of the year, and it’s largely thanks to the intricate interplay between Macfadyen and Julia Garner (whom we wrote about on our list of the best lead actors of 2020). Garner’s character, Jane, is a worn-down assistant to a movie exec, and throughout a working day, she begins to suspect that her boss is sexually abusing women behind closed doors. She visits Macfadyen’s character to report this abuse, but in just 10 minutes, he convinces her that speaking out is the last thing she wants to do.
Macfayden appears warm and welcoming at first, smiling and laughing casually, almost goofily, so that Jane feels she’s in a safe space to open up. His face is open, concerned, empathetic, his gaze fixed on her so she feels she has his undivided attention. As Jane begins to describe “a girl who arrived today, she’s very pretty, and she’s young”, Macfadyen’s eyes widen and eyebrows shoot up on the words “pretty” and “young” — you see him taking note of these details so he can use them against her later and paint Jane as jealous. His forehead creases, and then he pauses for a skeptical “…and?” At this point, his body language begins to subtly imply that Jane is wasting his time: he nods rapidly and talks over her as if hurrying her along, scrawls notes on his notepad, and rubs his eye as if he’s tired and wants this over with. Macfadyen gently and impatiently taps his fingers against the desk.
Because Jane talks in circles around the abuse, rather than directly alleging it, Macfadyen’s character takes that as an opportunity to feign ignorance. Macfadyen takes huge pauses, as if trying and failing to put the pieces of Jane’s story together, and then repeats what she’s said back to her in a way that makes it sound utterly mundane. When Jane implies that she “found out” something, Macfadyen lets out a mocking laugh as he says, “Sorry, what did you find out?” At this point, he lets his skepticism come to the surface, playing with the end of his pen so that Jane can hear its impatient clicking. He takes a call on his cell and starts laughing and talking about football with his friend on the other end of the line; the speed with which he switches to casual, jovial mode communicates how little he cares about Jane’s complaint.
The dialogue is just one layer of this complex scene, and Macfadyen’s body language communicates the hostile subtext behind the words he’s saying. His character recounts the events Jane has described back to her, his tone slow and patronising. “So that’s it? That’s why you came in?” he asks, although the crease in his brow implies what he’s really asking: “That’s what you’re wasting my time with?” After Jane has finished talking, he switches to a friendly tone and launches into a barrage of personal questions: “Where did you go to college?” “Where do you live?”, and finally “So why do you want to throw it away over this bullshit?” His voice is emotive and empathetic, but the harshness with which he spits out and throws away the word “bullshit” is a blunt dismissal of everything Jane is so concerned about. Macfadyen’s character is telling Jane that the company will destroy her career if she tries to report the boss, without ever actually saying that. His final line, delivered dispassionately and without eye contact, comes closest to explicitly acknowledging it: “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. You’re not his type.”
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