Submission reminds me of a story someone once told me about a kid she was babysitting. As soon as the kid’s parents left the house, the kid turned to my friend and said something to the effect of, “Here’s how it’s gonna go. You’re gonna let me do what I want, or I’m gonna call Child Protective Services.” My friend had done nothing wrong nor said one thing to this kid, and this was the kind of night she was going to have.
What unsettles me about Submission is it tells a dangerous tale which hits a little too close to home, especially with recent events involving sexual harassment being so prevalent in our news cycle. Men are being accused of flagrant sexual abuse after years of people turning a blind eye to it, and most have not been accused without just cause. However, in the case of Submission, we see how one person’s wrong choice leads all of the players down a path on which no one ever wants to find themselves, and we can’t do anything except watch with our teeth grinding as the film plays to its eventual close.
And the reason our teeth grind is that we see well-intentioned college professor Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) make stupid decisions in the face of everything he has in his world. He’s published a bestselling, semi-autobiographical novel, which led him to his job as a creative writing instructor at a little college in Vermont. His beautiful, loving wife Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick) and terrific house all paint a picture-perfect image of someone who’s got it good.
But every instinct in the world which powers a thinking person’s decision to not get involved – not necessarily sexually, but personally (at first) – with a subordinate seems to get thrown out the window. Why? Because Ted’s writing student Angela (Addison Timlin) is a big fan of his. She’s flattering and charming; not only is she a gorgeous-looking young woman, she also happens to be writing her own novel. He sees a budding talent in her as she eagerly gives him early drafts for his approval.
And then, the slut-shaming starts. We’re told about Angela’s promiscuous past being hinted at in a book she wrote about a phone sex operator, which Ted finds in the school library and devours. This hint of danger seems to be breaking him out of the ho-hum tedium of his genteel life with Sherrie, and he wants more, especially when he reads the further chapters of Angela’s novel, which turn out of the quirky and into the erotic. The line between professional and personal gets crossed numerous times, with overtures coming from both sides and fantasies involving the two of them being made manifest on screen.
The politics of sex and power collide explosively in this film, with neither giving ground to the other. On one hand, you have Ted – published author, college professor, connections to publishers and agents, and the authority to pass judgment on Angela’s work. He seems to enjoy riling up his students, adhering to prescribed rules just enough to get things going. He’s comfortable, spending most of his time on cruise control, with no seeming ability to either slam on the brakes or hit the gas when he needs to. Which, of course, leads him to the circumstance in which he finds himself with Angela.
Addison Timlin plays Angela with spot-on precision. She starts off as a plucky, eager ingenue of sorts, but the layers peel back to reveal a femme fatale – desirable, sensual, and driven, willing to go to extreme lengths to get what she wants. She’s painted early on as an unreliable narrator with discrepancies about her family which she glosses over, hoping Ted won’t dig further. And when she shows her cards and plays her part in the film’s closing scenes, you’ll find yourself amazed at her ability to play everyone like a fiddle.
Where Submission loses its way is in the treatment of all of the characters peripheral to Ted and Angela. Everyone apart from these two is painted in broad strokes, just enough to let you know what kind of caricature they are so they’ll fall into place once the puzzle pieces are sorted. Even Sedgwick’s Sherrie is a stereotypical, clueless, la-dee-da kinda wife who seems constantly happy until she’s not. That’s the way everyone is treated in this film, and because of this Submission comes off more as a stilted morality play rather than the psychological thriller director/screenwriter Richard Levine may have wished it to be.
When it arrives at its nearly predestined conclusion, you can’t help but think of Ted as the biggest idiot you’ve ever laid eyes on. There are so many opportunities for him to do the right thing, and most of the time, he appears like he’s about to do it… but then, he doesn’t. There are several ways the word “submission” can be taken in regards to this movie; you won’t have a hard time figuring out which meaning takes center stage. Submission is a train wreck unfolding before your very eyes, and you can’t turn away from it.