The Rape Clause (written and directed by Jared Watmuff) is one those films that makes you almost forget to breathe — as though you come to and exhale only as the credits finish. Set in modern-day Britain, the film explores the harrowing consequences of the 2017 reform to Child Tax Credit rules. Dubbed ‘The Rape Clause’, the reform prevents families from claiming tax credits or benefits for more than two children, unless it can be proven that additional children were conceived non-consensually.
The story is told through the eyes of Angela (Maria Hildebrand), a young mother applying for an exemption for her child. “It’s just a form, just a stupid piece of paper,” Angela’s internal monologue implores, as she sits a sterile room opposite a counsellor (Pamela Jikiemi), whose goal is to distil Angela’s experience into a ticked box. Through a series of questions that are both painfully intimate and clinically bureaucratic, we join Angela as she is forced to recount her violent assault.
The film’s great success is Watmuff’s ability to capture the collision of monotonous bureaucracy with raw, visceral pain. This is driven by excellent casting. Hildebrand is superb as Angela. Her initial micro-expressions expertly convey the character’s struggle to not unravel during the interview, before fraying and breaking down as the questions unearth deeply-buried trauma. Jikiemi’s portrayal of the counsellor is also excellent: she is benign yet insensitive, diplomatic but unqualified to manage the anguish she is obliged to extract from Angela.
The choice of shooting in 4:3 format is interesting. Conceptually, it succeeds in putting Angela at the centre of the story. However, for me, the vintage feeling of 4:3 is incongruous with the modernity of the story. Perhaps if the ratio was only used for Angela’s flashbacks it would have been more effective. Despite this, DP Laura Dinnett’s use of close-ups and inserts — complemented by disorienting sound — place us firmly in Angela’s memories.
The Rape Clause’s fiercely political message is brought into reality with the inclusion of a clip of former Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, who remarks in chilling double-speak that the reform could, in fact, be a positive thing — giving women the opportunity to ”talk about something that happened…they perhaps didn’t have before” and provide an “outlet” about their trauma.
The Rape Clause has parallels with Watmuff’s first film (Hey You), and is evidence that he is mastering his craft, creating sobering, emotive cinema that is unapologetically political.