Bursts of sudden, searing violence scattered among scenes of sunny but slightly askew domesticity help make "Do You See Her," a harrowing two-minute film for U.K. charity Women's Aid, one of the most memorable PSAs so far this year.
"I wanted to try and show how someone suffering abuse could appear totally normal and happy in front of those closest to them," RSA Films director Paul Andrew Williams tells Adweek. "We all have the possibility of being very close to this problem without even knowing."
Williams focuses on a sadly overlooked target of domestic abuse, establishing a cozy but mildly "off" atmosphere—note the vibe during the family meal—that explodes about 40 seconds into the narrative.
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"Older women are often invisible in many spheres of life, and it can be all too easy to not see what is really going on," says actress Tessa Peake-Jones, who portrays the grandmother. "I want to give these women a voice, to show them that they are not alone, that they deserve help if they are experiencing domestic abuse."
Peake-Jones' complex, understated performance, along with those of seasoned British actors Anne-Marie Duff as the daughter and Phil Davis as the grandfather, really sell the scenario. Davis is especially chilling, screaming like a wild man and physically assaulting Peake-Jones one minute, then apologizing the next.
"The audience is women over 50 who may have grown-up children and grandchildren," says Women's Aid communications manager Teresa Parker, who worked with Williams to develop the PSA. "We also want to reach younger generations and ask them to think about domestic abuse affecting older women, including their mothers and grandmothers. We wanted to break myths about domestic abuse only happening in poorer homes—the film is set in a very middle-class, comfortable home."
Williams' visual style propels the message; he deftly delivers a nightmare payoff that should stick in viewers' heads. The director, widely acclaimed for his BAFTA-winning 2014 BBC drama Murdered by My Boyfriend, which dealt with a teenage girl's abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, literally pulls no punches here. That sequence on the staircase is as unsettling as it gets, as is the scene where Davis bellows as he pounds on a locked door.
Ultimately, however, the quiet final frames, with Peake-Jones standing alone, then walking back inside the house, might be the saddest of all. They vividly frame her isolation and drive home that she's trapped inside an especially vicious cycle, one emphasized by the vivid repetition of other moments in the narrative.
"The film makes the viewer feel the fear that a woman in an abusive relationship is feeling," says Parker. "It is not just seeing the abuse that is important, it is the overwhelming feeling that you cannot escape and that you have to pretend everything is OK. The psychological side of the abuse is just as important as the physical abuse—it is in every look, every move throughout the film."