AN INCONVENIENT SLEUTH
The Woman in the Window (15)
Review: RJ Bland
When the the looming spectre of Covid-19 turned into a full blown pandemic, something slightly strange happened with regards to people's viewing habits. Whilst some decided to steer clear of watching anything that would increase their anxiety levels, others had different ideas – and on Netflix, Steven Soderbergh's medical thriller Contagion (2011) became one of their most watched movies. Were viewers trying to seek some kind of catharsis by confronting their fears head on through the medium of film or was there something a little more morbid going on? We watch films for escapism in some ways but in others, especially genre movies, they are often a way to process troubling themes and subjects that in a real world situation would be considerably more distressing. Sure enough, as infections and fatalities increased and people were put into lockdown, the less appealing these types of films became, 'Let's watch a film about a virus that wreaks havoc on the planet' suddenly felt a little bit too real. One of the unfortunate side effects of the lockdowns have been the sense of isolation that many have felt – something which has had a crippling affect on the mental health of many. Here in the UK things are starting to ease a little now, so it seems like a better time to release a film about an agoraphobe who thinks one of her neighbours has done something bad (and we mean murder, not breaking the rule of six)
Anna Fox (Amy Adams) is a child psychologist who lives alone in a rather grand Harlem brownstone. However, Anna is going through something of a rough patch. Estranged from her husband and child, she's also got a drink problem too – spending her evenings watching TV and drinking far too much wine (hey, we've all been there). However the combination of alcohol and her meds mean that she spends a lot of her time existing in a bit of a fugue. She's also completely housebound – her agoraphobia so severe that she's not able to go outside at all, much to her therapist's frustration. She does however like to keep an eye on her neighbours and her interest is piqued when a new family, the Russells, move into the building opposite. Mr Russell (Gary Oldman) is a grumpy former city bigwig and the teenage son is an awkward but sensitive teen. And after Anna passes out after confronting a bunch of kids who are egging her house on Halloween night, she gets to meet Mrs Russell (Julianne Moore) in person too. The two women spend a few hours together in Ana's house, having a few drinks and bonding over motherhood. With a growing sense of unease about Mr Russell's potentially abusive behaviour, Anna makes an effort to keep tabs on them and the next day looks on in horror as Mrs Russell is attacked inside her own home. She calls the police but when Mr Russell appears with another woman who he claims is his wife, Anna begins to wonder if she is losing her grip on reality.
The Woman in the Window didn't have a very easy start in life. In fact, the story behind the author of the book it is based on is possibly more fascinating that then film itself. We won't go into the details here though – but just google AJ Finn if you are interested. The film was actually made in 2019 but due to a combination of covid-19 and production company buyouts, it has taken nearly two and a half years to see the light of day – with it finally ending up on Netflix. There are reports and rumours of re-shoots and re-writes and poor test screenings but the end product feels like something that is a little unfinished rather than something that has been repeatedly honed.
The premise for The Woman in the Window obviously has echoes of a particular Hitchcock classic but then again, any film involving witnessing a murder through a window will have that claim levelled at it. There is actually some scope for some real Hitchcockian suspense here too but the film is more interested in disorientation than it is in building any sense of rising tension. Unreliable narrators always have the potential to frustrate; too much second guessing and viewer interest wanes and we care less and less about what's happening to our lead. There's definitely a bit of that going on here for sure.
Amy Adams does her best to be fair. Her turn in Sharp Objects is evidence that she's got the chops for a role like this but unfortunately she's not in control of the script, which doesn't really do enough to garner too much empathy for her predicament. But whilst she at least manages to convince us that Anna Fox is a real life person, the same can't be said for the rest of the cast. Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh are all very talented actors – but it almost feels as if they are in a different film entirely. None of them feel genuine, there's almost a detachment to them. It's possibly a stylistic choice as The Woman in the Window has a definite sense of theatricality to it. At times it feels like it could be a stage play, from the way people talk to each other to the way people are arranged within scenes themselves. There's something unnatural running through the film's veins though and rather than leaving us feel unsettled, it often takes us out of the moment. There's a difference between the uncanny and the unbelievable.
Perhaps the biggest problem the film has however is that the twists don't really work. There are a couple of key turns in the final act and not only are they predictable, they are handled rather sloppily too. The solution to the riddle is rarely going to be as satisfying as the riddle itself but what we end up here is bordering on offensive to the viewer's intelligence. The film bows out with a bit of action but by this juncture, there's a good chance you're probably not that invested anyway. It's a shame because the ingredients are there for a compelling and gripping psychological thriller and Joe Wright does give us a rich, moody aesthetic. But it ends up being not much more than a mediocre melodrama.