Margaret Atwood: A Word after a Word after a Word is Power

By: Jessica Goddard

Margaret Atwood is fairly low-hanging fruit as far as documentary subjects go.  At the moment, it’s almost certain she’s Canada’s most recognized, beloved author, and her latest novel, The Testaments, came out in September and is a sequel to her best-known work, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Margaret Atwood: A Word after a Word after a Word is Power is a surface level glimpse into the storyteller’s life story.  Filmmakers Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont are obviously given privileged access to the author, but the result remains a celebration of the author’s quick personality as opposed to a revealing exploration of her psyche. 

It makes use of family photos, videos, excerpts from speeches and interviews;  bound together with readings from her most popular books and poems.  So, pretty standard fare for a biographical documentary.  Interestingly the subject (sometimes referred to as “Peggy” by those close to her) seems to only humour the idea of herself as such (“Let’s not do the psychological deep dive,” she responds to one of the filmmakers’ questions in an interview). 

The documentary starts out strong, chronicling Atwood’s earliest years in the Canadian wilderness with her forest entomologist father and older brother.  A little time is spent on her undergraduate studies at Victoria College at the University of Toronto, with some of the most interesting moments deriving from her postgraduate days at Harvard University’s Radcliffe College in the ’60s.  Here we witness the aspiring writer involved in the anti-war movement, and see her early writing venerated. 

But this is where the doc could benefit from a more probing eye.  Inquiring minds want to know how her first works came to be published, what really went down between her first husband and her second, and how she responds to the recent critiques of her feminism, for example. 

The filmmakers are unfortunately “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” when it comes to their heavy focus on The Handmaid’s Tale and its current TV adaption.  On the one hand, it’s her most popular work and probably of wide interest to this film’s audience.  On the other, all the screen time devoted to the novel and its sequel can feel cheaply promotional at times. 

Atwood turns 80 on November 18, and recently lost her longtime partner Graeme Gibson in September.  So, I guess now feels like an appropriate time to place a bookmark down and try to mine the author for insight before it’s too late.  But mostly, this documentary is good for showcasing its subject’s dry wit and self-assured points of view. 

In any case, it does prove the thesis of its title.


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