Review by Chris Olson
Clad in simple, gray tees and little black pants, a group of women huddle together as prisoners. The brick-walled room is in a warehouse, where these ladies are segregated from a society whose attitudes they oppose. Newcomer Ree (Catherine Butler) is the archetypal “new fish”, bewildered by the treatment of these political prisoners and out-of-sync with the pecking order she has been thrust into.
Full of intrigue and tense drama, Joski-Jethi’s story is heavily weighted with themes of sexism and repression. These characters, led by Hattie (Lorna Newman), form both a collective support group for each other, as well as a fractured sisterhood of conflicting ideology. The differing opinions on how to deal with their situation, when faced with “The Test”, as well as the pregnancy of one of their group, reveal bitter fault lines in the purpose of their resistance.
The issue of childbearing adds a compelling development to the film’s discourse - allowing the powerful duty felt by mothers, who would become a martyr in their maternal instincts, to become the overriding force in the group’s political direction. Not only have these women been subjected to sexual brutality and second-class citizenship, they must relinquish their morality due to their unique ability to carry a child.
As one of the prisoners says, “Our curse as women is for our pride to be forgotten”.
There is a boldness in Under My Thumb which must be celebrated. It delves straight into a huge and divisive topic, without stopping to consider any unnecessary exposition or narrative devices. It is stark and bleak throughout, capturing the essence of being a prisoner through its mise-en-scéne as well as its dialogue. There is only a sparse amount of sound effects used and even the framing is overly intimate, with severe close-ups and low-angle shots, that reflect the loss of freedom these characters have experienced.
The ensemble deliver a solid, collective performance, in particular during the final sequence which is a fantastic finish. Special mention must go to Butler, who navigates a complex, and emotionally tumultuous, portrayal with splendid poise. Some of the scenes have a degree of awkwardness to them, with characters seeming to be waiting for their turn to talk, or talking over each other and squirming, but for the most part the performers do well to carry the heavy load laid upon them.
Under My Thumb is political thriller and prison drama in equal measure, with Joski-Jethi delivering a scathing sermon on the realities of a “civilised” society. The result is a brutally engaging, thoughtful drama that will stay with you long after viewing.