Maclean’s once called her “Canada’s most gossiped-about writer,” but what do we really know about Margaret Atwood? Her first book came out fifty-eight years ago and since then she has been a constant presence on bookshelves. The television adaptation of her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” has lived at the very centre of pop culture since its debut in 2017 and she has won every award for writing, including two Bookers and the National Book Critics and PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Awards.
But what about the woman behind the words?
A new documentary, “Margaret Atwood: A Word After A Word After A Word Is Power” from directors Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont, aims to open the book on a person the film calls “a cultural rock star.”
Pulling its name from a line in one of Atwood’s poems, “A Word After A Word After A Word Is Power” is an overview of a literary life. Beginning with her earliest memories—the snow in Ottawa, the city of her birth— to writing her first novel at age seven, through to poetry readings at coffee houses like Toronto’s Bohemian Embassy, the all-male library at Harvard (apparently one of the inspirations for “The Handmaid’s Tale”) to suggesting CBC’s Hana Gartner read Harlequin Romances instead of her “sad” books, the film reveals a fearsome intellect with a sense of curiosity, humour and self-definition. “I never thought I’d be a popular writer,” someone quotes her as saying in the film’s opening minutes, “I only wanted to be a good one.”
We learn of the ironies of being a pioneering figure—her first book signing for “The Edible Woman” was at men’s sock and underwear department of a Hudson’s Bay store in Edmonton, chosen because it was near a highly trafficked escalator—and get a rare behind the scenes peak into her private life, including her first marriage to Jim Polk, a student she wed so he wouldn’t be drafted and sent to Vietnam.
To provide contemporary context the directors spent a year filming the septuagenarian as she and her late partner, novelist Graeme Gibson (the film is dedicated to his memory), travel to book signings and speaking engagements, while she works on the final pages of “The Testaments,” the sequel to “Handmaids.”
The linear presentation is linear skips through the events that make up her life, leading to a film that, while it covers a wide swathe of her life, feels rushed. At just ninety-two minutes it’s a rapidly paced but occasionally superficial telling of the life and work of an important artist.