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The Woman in the Window
Directed by Joe Wright
Written by Tracy Letts, based on the novel by A.J. Finn
Starring Amy Adams, Gary Oldman and Julianne Moore
Classification R; 100 minutes
The mind can make for a terrifying enemy. We’ve learned this through cinema, through literature and especially through our own experiences over the course of the pandemic. And this last point in particular added almost a sense of potential to The Woman in the Window, the Joe Wright-directed adaptation of A.J. Finn’s bestselling novel of the same name.
Centring around an agoraphobic woman named Anna (Amy Adams) who takes an active interest in her neighbours, the film begins with the promise of a story drenched in fear, anxiety and the trappings of self-doubt. But while we learn that Anna’s behaviour stems from severe trauma – and is spurred on by regularly self-medicating – her overwhelming sense of confinement still feels like a page out of the book Rear Window. That is, until it all goes south.
When we meet Anna, her hold on reality is precarious. Days melt into each other, interactions with neighbours seem fantastical and we soon glean that we’re only seeing as much as she wants to show us: we hear phone calls with her daughter and separated husband but never see a face. We witness a meeting with her psychiatrist but never glean any context. And most importantly, we witness an impromptu wine night with a new neighbour named Jane Russell (Julianne Moore) – whose murder Anna believes she has witnessed days later.
The thing is, had this plot development been treated the same way as Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly’s adventure more than 60 years ago, there’d be a clean story to follow and a clear hero to root for. Instead, Wright is so preoccupied with framing Anna as potentially unreliable thanks to her mental illness that we’re left wondering what and whom to believe. We may know that Anna is emotionally and mentally scarred, but with no backstory given (until it’s an “aha!” moment dropped more than halfway through), it’s difficult to drum up support for our main character.
You know that you’re supposed to be on her side, but for most of the runtime it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where or what that side even is. (And if that is an intentional filmmaking decision, it’s still not made clear enough: a movie is never supposed to feel like you’re just watching a bunch of people do things.)
Not that it’s any fault of Adams. For the record, Adams deserves praise and adoration every day, but especially when turning what could be an unsalvageable role into an avenue through which to once again show us that she has the range. Where Anna’s actions are frustrating and unbelievable, Adams finds a way to make her human, evoking sympathy, understanding and heartbreak, and reminding us that who we’re watching is a person. (Also, the rapport between herself and Punch the cat is awe-inspiring.)
But it shouldn’t be Adams’ job to save a movie that doesn’t have any idea what it actually is. (Or Moore’s for that matter.) And that’s the big issue: The Woman in the Window isn’t sure whether it’s a thriller, a drama, a psychological study or a slasher. Each Big Moment™ succeeds in eliciting a reaction, but that just leads to a new state of confusion. Confusion that’s spurred on by questions that aren’t answered.
Is it more important to uncover Anna’s past than to uncover the potential murder plot? (I’m still unsure.) Should we be warming ourselves to “helpful” secondary characters or are they a testament to how difficult it can be to trust people? (Again, who knows?) And is this story doing justice to survivors of trauma and those living with mental illness? Or is mental health merely a way of casting doubt on Anna’s experiences enough to shock us with what’s exposed as truth later?
The Woman in the Window would be an incredible thriller if it simply dared to commit to a singular vision and executed it without apology. Instead, it is a way to pass a couple hours in shutdown wondering when Amy Adams will finally win an Oscar. And wishing that you could join her in cuddling Punch the cat.
The Woman in the Window is available to stream on Netflix starting May 14
Special to The Globe and Mail
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.