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This weekend we’re watching: Woman in the Window

This weekend we’re watching: Woman in the Window
Woman in the Window, Amy Adams as Anna Fox

Woman in the Window is a long-awaited psychological thriller murder mystery boasting an illustrious cast, about a child psychologist with agoraphobia who witnesses a murder. It’s a thrilling albeit chaotic film set in a single Manhattan brownstone.

Woman in the Window is a psychological thriller, adapted by Tracy Letts from a New York Times Bestseller mystery novel of the same name. Directed by Tony Award-winning filmmaker Joe Wright, it boasts an illustrious cast including Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, Wyatt Russell, and Julianne Moore — no wonder was such hype surrounding its release.

Yet the production and release of Woman in the Window has been as chaotic as the film itself. Test audiences were left totally confused, so a second writer was carted in to clarify plot points. There were reshoots, missed release dates, and then there was Covid, which meant a hasty deal with Netflix and significant delays. But it’s finally arrived, and with unintended relevance to the global plight.

Amy Adams plays Anna Fox, a child psychologist who suffers from agoraphobia — she is absolutely terrified at the prospect of leaving her house. She preoccupies herself with caring for her cat, watching classic films, and drinking rather a lot of red wine, but most of all, she keeps tabs on the daily movements of her various neighbours from the windows of her lavish Manhattan brownstone home.

Woman in the Window, Amy Adams as Anna Fox (Photo Netflix)

Woman in the Window (2021), Amy Adams as Anna Fox (Photo Netflix)

By now you probably see the connection. Coronavirus has infected everyone with baseline agoraphobia, making Anna’s daily routine of cat, wine, films and prying more relatable than it was intended to be. While Anna’s anxieties are more extreme and irrational than our real-world concerns about the spread of Covid19, the symptoms of these fears are similar, so it’s easy to empathise with and become invested in the heightened drama of her perception.

If she’s forced to leave her house, Anna uses an umbrella to shield herself from the overwhelming stimulus of the outside world. When she picks it up preparing to leave, it reverberates with the resonant ring of a sword being unsheathed by a knight riding into battle. A mere knock on her door is as threatening as an approaching shark, accompanied by a score that implies impending danger every bit as much as the famous two-note motif of Jaws.

Wright’s first thriller, he was attracted to the challenges of a murder mystery set within a single house. The film begins with time-lapse pans through the seemingly empty interior as natural light pouring through the windows moves to darkness, showing unchanging isolation as the world churns on outside.

Wright’s flashy camerawork gives the brownstone house all the character and versatility of an open-air set, if not more. The use of light is particularly powerful. Scenes are lit expressionistically, ranging from soft sunshine to colourful, cool fluorescent lights that mirror Anna’s loneliness and emphasise her separateness from the outside.

An early interaction between Anna and David, her tenant who lives in the basement (played by Wyatt Russell), exemplifies how Anna’s fear and mistrust prevents her from connecting with people.

David: Halloween tonight. How do we do it without you going outside? Do you want me to get you some candy?
Anna: I won’t be giving out candy, I’m going to turn off the lights and pretend I’m not home.
David: You know you could just get a bowl of candy and leave it on the porch.
Anna: Any kid would take it within a minute, and then they’d take the bowl.
David: Well then why don’t we get a bowl of apples? Cos kids won’t take apples.
Anna: Then what’s the point?

Unable to form meaningful relationships within the constraints of her isolation, Anna leans into her drinking (despite the hallucinations it causes in conjunction with her medication) and becomes obsessed with the residents of the several apartments across from her. There’s a woman that starts texting whenever her partner leaves the room; there’s a prayer group that seems to be accumulating members in the apartment above; and in apartment 101, directly across from her, there’s a woman being stabbed to death.

Frantic, she calls 911 and passes out from panic, but when she wakes to the authorities in her house, they insist that there is no sign of a murder and that the neighbour she claims was killed is a different woman who is very much alive. Anna is distraught and resolves to discover the truth.

What follows is a whodunnit psychological rollercoaster from the perspective of a detective riddled with madness, with a similar appeal to films like Shutter Island and Christopher Nolan’s Memento. It becomes clear that Anna is delusional, and the question is which of her experiences are the real ones.

It’s a tricky and powerful cinematic device to take on the perception of a mentally ill person, and director Joe Wright’s ability to do so, capturing Anna’s anxiety, inner conflict and exasperating struggle to be taken seriously, is one of the strongest assets to the film.

Anna’s experiences start diverging from those around her. The days blur together. “You’re going mad”, she repeats to herself. It becomes impossible to determine which characters are innocent and which are malicious, as we start to internalise her dark, twisted view of people as complex, flawed and unreliable.

As her reality continues to contradict itself, inscrutable riddles emerge with accelerated pace and a forbidding promise of tragedy creeping eagerly towards the zenith; but despite the carnage of the climax, the film ends on an anticlimactically positive note, delivering only a shred of satisfaction at having unwoven the tangled mess of mysteries.

The intrigue of these mysteries and the disappointment to be found in their resolution both stem from their being rooted in Anna’s mind — initially they seem grand, shrouded in exciting doubt, but when it’s all laid out, free from the distortion of her perspective, it’s really not that complicated, nor interesting. This is a film to be watched for the thrill of the journey, as there’s nothing particularly special about the destination.

Woman in the Window (2021), Director Joe Wright with Amy Adams as Anna Fox. (Photo Netflix)

Woman in the Window’s motivational lesson on overcoming trepidation and taking charge of one’s life falls a bit flat without sufficient time for the development of this aspect of Anna’s character. But it does pack a powerful message about how our treatment of those with mental illness in times of great change can make them or break them.

Wright would likely argue that the hand-holding and spoon-feeding edited in after the reshoots are to blame for the film’s inability to live up to its hype, but the subtlety of his direction can still be felt strongly throughout most of the film. Adams is a riveting lead and the chemistry between her and the rest of the ensemble cast is excellent. Despite a somewhat limp finish, Woman in the Window is worth watching for its talented actors, expressive cinematography, and the hearth-thumping thrill of a chaotic plot. DM/ ML

Woman In The Window is available in South Africa on Netflix from May 14. You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]

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