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Like a messed-up patron saint of pandemic-era angst, Amy Adams’ character in The Woman in the Window spends almost all her waking hours in a robe and pajamas, a glass of red rarely out of reach. The thriller, a neo-Gothic diversion with a strong central performance, has nothing to do with the coronavirus, but in the long and twisted year and a half since its original release date was scrapped, the homebound protagonist has become that much more understandable to audiences. The story surrounding her is another matter.
Based on a super-popular 2018 novel and conceived as an awards contender for Fox, the Joe Wright-directed movie was caught up in the studio’s acquisition by Disney, and subjected to rewrites and reshoots after disappointing test screenings. The COVID-19 shutdown caused further delays, and, in the interim, exposés have damaged the clout of producer Scott Rudin and the bright-young-thing rep of the pseudonymous author A.J. Finn, who apparently knows more than a thing or two about unreliable narrators. (Deep in the closing credits, the novelist is listed a second time, as a “special consultant.”)
The final Fox 2000 production, Woman arrives on Netflix as a good-looking, mildly convoluted B movie with an A-list cast and enough red herrings to stock a deli counter. There’s no question that it’s rich in atmosphere, thanks to astute choices by Wright, fine work by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and the outstanding contributions of Kevin Thompson’s design team; the spacious multistory Harlem brownstone where the action unfolds is the second central character.
The woman knocking around that old and subtly burnished house is Adams’ Anna Fox, who has been stricken with the extreme anxiety disorder of agoraphobia for almost a year. She shares the place with a well-mannered cat, and recently began renting out the basement apartment. Her groceries and meds are delivered, and her psychiatrist makes house calls. He’s played with unsettling iciness by Tracy Letts (who also is the credited screenwriter). There’s a belligerent edge to their doctor-patient exchanges, a professional combativeness — Anna is a child psychologist, and wise to the ways of manipulation and psychopharmacological roulette. There are warmer notes of contention in her daily conversations with Ed (Anthony Mackie), the husband from whom she’s separated; their 8-year-old daughter (Mariah Bozeman) is with him.
If nothing else, the friction between Anna and her shrink sets the tone for all the off-the-charts anger and unpleasantness soon to arise like a toxic cloud from other figures in her orbit. It’s an off-kilter orbit, to be sure, as signaled in the movie’s opening seconds: Anna wakes in a panic, and the agitated strings of Danny Elfman’s score flutter into motion. Her tenant, David (Wyatt Russell), can’t seem to utter a word that doesn’t sound menacing. The Russells, the new neighbors in the house directly across the street, and the subject of much through-the-curtains interest from Anna’s modern-day Mrs. Kravitz, demonstrate a spectrum of personality disorders.
The family’s teenage son, Ethan (Fred Hechinger), is the first to introduce himself, bearing the offering of a scented candle and the tearful, awkward signs of emotional fragility. This triggers a sense of purpose in the out-of-work therapist, who after a couple of encounters with Ethan’s blustery father, Alistair (Gary Oldman), is certain that the 15-year-old is an abused child.
Anna’s longest encounter with any of the Russells is an impromptu night of wine and semi-confessional conversation with Ethan’s mother, Jane (Julianne Moore). There’s a riveting mix of warmth and wariness to the twitchy sequence, and Adams and Moore masterfully navigate the fine lines between what’s divulged and what’s withheld by these two strangers.
Soon Anna is channeling not just a sitcom busybody but Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, ensconced in shadow and aiming her camera’s telephoto lens at the Russells’ house. She catches glimpses of family conflict, each window framing a fragment of domestic drama. The film, like the novel it’s based on, abounds in references to Hitchcock and other old mysteries and noirs that Anna watches incessantly; in some of the strongest visual elements, Wright and Delbonnel place the sleeping Anna, passed out from wine and Rx, in skewed perspective against the black-and-white footage on her TV, as though she and the decades-old characters — variously targeted, suffering, gaslighted — are entering one another’s dreams.
Her nightmare deepens: She, and she alone, hears a scream from the Russells’ house. Later, she sees Jane stabbed and stumbling, but can’t convince anyone that she witnessed a murder, or even that she ever met the woman. Anna is a drunk, after all, and hallucinations are among her many meds’ potential side effects. On top of that, she’s introduced to the “real” Jane (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who might be the world’s most unhappily married woman, but at any rate is a figure as suspiciously rigid as Moore’s character is suspiciously animated.
Compressing the source material, the screenplay (with rewrites reportedly handled by Tony Gilroy) only accentuates the thinness of the story. A work of snack-food readability but little substance, the novel is seasoned with skillful misdirection that can’t hide how ultrabasic-bordering-on-threadbare its core psychology is. The movie, which ups the violence a bit, ends on a slightly different but no less wanting note, and never matches the nuance and intensity of Adams’ performance, with its fully alive and unpredictable guardedness, prevarication and naked emotion.
Wright stages the first of two big reveals in a highly stylized, theatrical way. As a means of conveying Anna’s perspective, this approach works, but it doesn’t transcend the wacko factor that plagues the drama. Throughout the narrative Anna is surrounded by as off-putting and tightly wound a collection of characters as has ever been assembled, and in the moment when she’s forced to face an unwelcome truth, she’s literally surrounded by them. It feels like a gang-up. The one exception is Brian Tyree Henry’s sad-eyed NYPD detective, perhaps the only “normal” person in the story, and certainly the only grown-up with an ounce of compassion. As his partner, Jeanine Serralles spews nothing but shoot-from-the-hip accusations.
The idea of a seemingly unhinged woman struggling to be believed remains a viable dramatic trope, for painfully obvious reasons — the persistent realities of condescension and demonization, for starters. Rosemary’s Baby, a film of more recent vintage than Anna’s beloved classics, is another obvious touchstone for her story. It too revolves around a woman fighting to be taken seriously while inhabiting some fabulous century-old Manhattan real estate. Anna’s brownstone is, in a sense, a vertical variation on the expansive spread of Rosemary’s apartment. But that 1968 horror tale was underpinned by more than finely crafted hardwood floors and plot-device switcheroos. Effectively moody but offering frustratingly skin-deep chills, The Woman in the Window underestimates its hero in more ways than one.
Production companies: 20th Century Studios, Fox 2000
Cast: Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, Fred Hechinger, Wyatt Russell, Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tracy Letts, Julianne Moore, Jeanine Serralles, Mariah Bozeman
Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Tracy Letts
Based on the novel by A.J. Finn
Producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Anthony Katagas
Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Production designer: Kevin Thompson
Costume designer: Albert Wolsky
Editor: Valerio Bonelli
Music: Danny Elfman
Casting director: Ellen Chenoweth
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