Review: Margaret Atwood doc is a conventional accounting of her life and accomplishments

MARGARET ATWOOD: A WORD AFTER A WORD AFTER A WORD IS POWER (Nancy Lang, Peter Raymont). 92 minutes. Opens Thursday (November 14). See listing. Rating: NNN

It’s probably impossible to make a satisfying documentary about Margaret Atwood that doesn’t run three or four hours – at least, not if you’re planning to make a conventional, chronologically structured accounting of her life and accomplishments. An hour and a half requires too much compression to do justice to the woman who may well be Canada’s finest and most enduring author.

Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont run into that problem in MARGARET ATWOOD A Word After A Word After A Word Is Power, a laudatory but conventional documentary opening for a theatrical run at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema Thursday (November 14) in advance of its debut on the Documentary Channel Tuesday (November 19).

(Just to complicate things, a shorter cut of the film, called Margaret Atwood Encounters, airs on CBC Docs Thursday at 9 pm and arrives on the Gem streaming service on Tuesday. I have not seen that version.)

Shooting over their subject’s “80th year” – Atwood turns 80 this weekend – Lang and Raymont follow her around the world as she attends festivals, gives keynote speeches, visits the Toronto set of the Handmaid’s Tale TV series and prepares for the launch of that book’s sequel, The Testaments. The filmmakers also speak to Atwood’s family, friends and collaborators about her younger days and career accomplishments, illustrating them with archival interviews, media clips and selected readings of her poems and prose performed by Tatiana Maslany.

Lang and Raymont don’t take too many risks in their presentation, letting us see Atwood’s dry, cutting wit in TV clips and audience Q&As – and in moments when the filmmakers’ tactics are called out by their subject, who knows all too well how she’s been packaged in media appearances over the decades. The closest the movie comes to a stylistic flourish is a montage of Atwood telling the story of her first book signing in the men’s underwear department of a Hudson’s Bay store in Edmonton, pieced together over the decades.

It’s a pretty basic approach, as Atwood herself notes several times over the course of the shoot. (“Look, I’m coming out of a hotel!” she laughs in Amsterdam. “It’s so interesting!”) And the format necessitates collapsing decades of work into minutes of screen time, shuffling through The Edible Woman and Surfacing and Cat’s Eye and Alias Grace in order to place The Handmaid’s Tale front and centre. 

On the one hand, you can’t fault Lang and Raymont for that decision, since the 1985 novel is Atwood’s best-known work, a parable about American fundamentalism spawned in the Reagan era that now feels like a prophecy in the age of Trump. (The documentary’s strongest moments feature Atwood touring the Harvard campus with her former roommate Susan Milmoe, pointing out the buildings she’d repurpose as key Gilead locations.)

On the other, there is so much more to Atwood’s work and life than that one book – the quietly perfect verses of her early poetry, the dystopian sci-fi of the MaddAddam trilogy, the curious real-world technological innovations in which she’s been an enthusiastic participant. 

And while Atwood’s friend Adrienne Clarkson says the author lives up to Akira Kurosawa’s dictum (“the artist never averts his eyes”), the documentary about her doesn’t quite manage the same feat. It’s very delicate about the circumstances of Atwood’s affair with Graeme Gibson, who would become her second husband – both were married to other people when they met – and even more circumspect about Gibson’s dementia, which goes unmentioned until the doc’s final moments. (The author died last month, and the film is dedicated to his memory.) 

If you’re looking for a rough guide to her life and work, with extensive segments on the project that made her a household name, this will do. But if you’ve been a follower of Atwood’s life and work, this doc feels frustratingly incomplete.


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