Senior investment banker Naomi Bishop’s world of high-power big money is brutal and fierce, and one she thrives in. When a controversial IPO threatens the fragile balance of power and confidentiality, Naomi finds herself entangled in a web of politics and deception.
It’s hard to think of a movie that passes the Bechdel Test with more flying colours than this smart and entertaining corporate thriller about female investment bankers on Wall Street. Not only do female characters have conversations with each other about topics other than men (the basic Bechdel criteria), the whole ethos of Equity – from its storyline, its female creative team and its financing by real female power-players from Wall Street – is about women openly admitting they’re competing for power and money, albeit on a grossly unequal playing field.
When was the last time you heard a sympathetic female character admit outright that she likes money? Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn, best known as Breaking Bad’s famously unpopular Skylar White) does just that. A highly successful female investment banker in her late 40s, she lives happily alone in a stylish penthouse with a goldfish for company. She has a regular lover (James Purefoy) who happens to work in another division of the company, though Naomi’s scrupulous about avoiding breaching confidentiality. Her speciality is bringing tech startups through the delicate process of launching on the market with their initial public offering (IPO). Having suffered a recent failure, she’s desperate that her next project, ‘Cache’ – a social networking company offering airtight privacy settings – launch with a bang and thus secure her a much-deserved promotion.
Viewers will be struck by how rare it is to see such a nuanced story about implicit rather than explicit sexism and exclusion from positions of power in the workplace.
Working beneath Naomi is Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas, who also produced and co-wrote the script), an ambitious younger woman hiding an inconvenient pregnancy. It’s a dangerous All About Eve dynamic, yet we keep wishing loyalty and honesty might win out. Complicating things is the appearance of Naomi’s former classmate Samantha Ryan (Alysia Reiner, also a writer and producer on the film). She’s a lawyer turned white-collar crime investigator for the state attorney’s office and she suspects Naomi’s lover is involved in insider trading. She’s prepared to do anything to expose the crime – including, it must be said, some unconvincing ‘seduction’ of a drunk source. The fact that Samantha is working for a public servant pittance compared to the wealthy people she’s up against gives delicious bite to the story.
Directed by Meera Menon, who won the Nora Ephron Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival for her 2013 debut feature Farah Goes Bang, Equity is well-paced and intelligently scripted, albeit with the occasional misstep. Belying its small budget, the sleek production design from Diane Lederman and unsettling off-centre cinematography by DOP Eric Lin help to create a convincing corporate world that runs on the smell of money.
Viewers will be struck by how rare it is to see such a nuanced story about implicit rather than explicit sexism and exclusion from positions of power in the workplace. Naomi is continually criticised for ‘rubbing people up the wrong way’ rather than for the actual quality of her work. The long hours, hard drinking and fine dining (Tasmanian sea trout being a recurring menu item) that accompany deal making are intrinsically at odds with Erin’s pregnancy and marriage. When she chooses to employ her sexual power for business advantage, it’s shown how pitiful a weapon this is when big dollars and huge egos are involved.
Statistics provided in the film’s press kit state that of the 22 largest US investment banks and financial firms, there’s never been a female CEO, and only 16.6 per cent of the executives are female. Equity darkly depicts the glass ceilings such women work under, and while we may not like the characters or envy them by the story’s conclusion, we’ve got to respect the courage involved in batting one’s head against such ceilings.