‘Never read the comments,’ as the not-so-old adage goes. It’s also the advice offered to columnist Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) by her horror-novelist boyfriend Steven (Bram van der Kalen) in regard to the endless torrent of abuse and harassment she receives daily via social media in Ivo van Aart’s The Columnist. It’s a nice thought, but much easier said than done when so much of our lives are experienced through Twitter and Facebook.
It also makes you winder why victims of harassment are just told to grin and bear it, while the trolls are allowed to run free; and also what happens when the victim has had enough and chooses to take things into her own hands. The Columnist is a revenge-thriller through and through, and one perfectly suited for the modern digital age. With all the social media-based films like Unfriended and Searching, it’s surprising that a film like this hasn’t come about sooner.
It’s not uncommon for journalists to receive harassment online from those who hide behind anonymity and Herbers excellently channels Femke’s rage, frustration and paranoia throughout the film, making her gripping to watch. Likewise, The Columnist neatly balances Femke’s normal life with her growing sociopathic tendencies, while also steadily exposing her own hypocrisy. It’s in these moments that the film is at its best, which is a credit to Daan Windhorst’s writing. His sharp, witty dialogue flows naturally and greatly aids the performances of all involved.
That said, the film is not without fault and while the core premise may be fresh, it lacks anything else truly unique to make it stand out. Many of Femke’s decisions are frustrating, as though she is intentionally setting herself up to fail. Likewise, there are some plot elements that seem rather forced, especially the attempt to explore how far free speech truly goes which feels as though it only scratches the surface.
Similarly, far more could be done with Femke’s daughter Anna (Claire Porro). Her growing distrust of Steven that would greatly add to the overall tension of the piece. This is ultimately the film’s greatest misstep, as amidst the discussion about free speech that sits at its core and the fantastic central performance from Herbers, are the pieces for something special. But without the necessary tension, The Columnist struggles to assemble them and deliver on its ambition.
Available on-demand as part of Fantasia Festival