Trigger warning: Sexual assault
Prima Facie tells the story of Tessa (Jodie Comer), a young, tenacious and determined barrister who is at the prime of her career. With a sharp mind and an ironclad belief in the word of the law, she has never lost a case. Even when working on cases that would trigger the squeamish, she would always rely on a moral vacuum all for the sake of winning; even over the argument of her feminism. But her life takes a sharp turn when she finds herself on the other side of the law. She now has to face the same hypocrisies and trials that she has long been the harbinger and defender of.
The set design by Miriam Buether is memorably minimalist as it showcases the world that Tessa thrives in as well gradually enclosing POV of Tessa as she undergoes a horrific event that puts her on the bench. The use of books and folders is particularly inspired as it highlights (in some scenes, literally) the immutable word of the law as well as the cases Tessa has won (or swept under the rug).
The musical score by Rebecca Lucy Taylor (aka Self-Esteem) is energetic and propulsive when it is used scantly and it matches the whirlwind of emotions that Tessa goes through as well as the sharpness (it often feels like an effective jump-scare) of the screenplay by Suzie Miller as it provides an agonizing polemic over the law on sexual assault.
The examinations of the hypocrisy of the law as well as the misogyny inherent in patriarchal rule are explored with ruthless abandon, agonizing pathos as well as pitch-black humour. Whether it would be about Tessa’s upbringing, the self-cross-examination that contrasts her position and the swagger that informs her behaviour as well as her work ethic, the screenplay is strong overall. However, even with Justin Martin’s assured direction, the play does falter a bit as it struggles to find a fine balance with being a character study and being a polemic as it feels like Tessa is more of a signifier than a character.
Fortunately, all is forgiven thanks to the sterling work from Jodie Comer. She is given a mammoth of a task to work with that not only requires to recount many characters but intricately moving set props and Comer pulls it off. What makes her work stand out is how amazingly seamless she is. The amazing feat of physicality that informs her character is astounding to watch; particularly in a scene where Tessa goes from physical comedy in a drunken stupor to a devastating stillness after being assaulted. To shift from unbridled glee to painful agony to nuanced sorrow and understated resolve, Comer is the main reason to see Prima Facie.
From the striking set to the compellingly forceful musical score to the virulent yet compassionate writing to Jodie Comer’s towering work as the lead, Prima Facie is a triumph from all fronts.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
NT Live – Prima Facie is now showing in Australian and NZ cinemas now, courtesy of Sharmill Films.