Within the first few minutes of The Woman in the Window, it becomes clear that this film is an ode to the 1954 classic thriller Rear Window. The problem with the movie is not just with its poor attempt to emulate Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but also with its inability to excite or shock as thrillers are usually supposed to.
The movie is the latest installment in the recent trend of adapting the stories of famous unreliable narrators like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl and Rachel in The Girl on the Train to screen. However, the film’s success in doing so is questionable.
The Woman in the Window is an adaptation of novelist AJ Finn’s best-selling 2018 book of the same name. The elements of suspense and intrigue coupled with the protagonist Anna’s unreliable narration are the driving forces in Finn’s story. However, director Joe Wright strings together a rushed plot and weak screenplay reducing it to an uninspiring and tedious adaption of the novel.
An agoraphobic child psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams) lives alone in one of New York City’s famed brownstone houses. Her tenant David (Wyatt Russell) is a handyman who frequently oscillates between friendly and volatile.
Separated from her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie) and their eight-year-old daughter Olivia, she spends her time watching black-and-white thrillers and spying on her next-door neighbours. In the manner of James Stewart in Rear Window, she silently observes the various happenings in their lives while the neighbours have no clue.
Her latest obsession is the Russells, a family that has just moved in across the street. She strikes a friendship with the 15-year-old Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger), who stops by her home with a gift. Taken by his friendly but silent and troubled demeanour, Anna begins to suspect that his father Alistair (Gary Oldman) is abusive and controlling. Soon after, Ethan’s mother Jane (Julianne Moore) drops in and the two women strike up a friendship over wine.
A lonely and frequently drunk Anna, who uses her Nikon camera to spy on her neighbours, wakes up one night to witness the ghastly murder of Jane by an unseen assailant. When the police arrive, they question Anna’s grasp over reality. She is known for being an alcoholic and consuming medication that can make her hallucinate. To make matters more sinister, Alistair shows up and refutes Anna’s theory by bringing a different woman and claiming that she is Jane Russell (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Shook by this revelation and unable to move on from what she witnessed, Anna delves deeper into the conspiracy as she is simultaneously forced to come to terms with her own realities.
While this plot is promising on paper, the film adaptation is underwhelming.
The creators spend very little time establishing the characters and setting. For instance, the reasons for David’s volatile nature, Alistair’s cold and seemingly cruel nature are introduced hurriedly but they are never fully explained or resolved. Anna’s friendship with Jane and her relationship with Ethan is also established very poorly and inorganically.
The film’s deviation from the source material only aids in making an already shallow story more unconvincing. For instance, in the novel, Finn takes his time to establish Anna’s agoraphobia. She is part of an online forum for people who share her disorder and she frequently chats with them. She is also an avid chess player. While these seem like small details, they help propel the story forward and tie up loose ends.
Characters like Bina (Anna’s physical therapist), William, and ‘Granny Lizzie’ (another Agora forum member) play their part in making the story interesting and the twists delectable but they are notoriously absent in the movie version.
By skipping these important sequences, the film’s mystery is stripped off its charm. The subsequent revelations (which are not totally unexpected) simply fall flat.
The film, much like the novel, has two important twists that it executes poorly. Finn, who relies heavily on misdirecting and confusing his readers, manages to achieve the shock value that he was going for while making the big reveals.
The screen adaptation does neither of those things. While making the first reveal, the creators dramatise it to the extent where it feels like a soap opera rather than a murder mystery. All the characters surround Anna as they confront her to face an inconvenient truth about herself. An important part of the movie, this scene is let down heavily by poor dialogue delivery and forced acting by a cast that has no chemistry.
Despite having a stellar cast, the plot makes it very difficult for them to deliver noteworthy performances. The film underutilises the capabilities of seasoned actors like Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, and Wyatt Russell.
It is Adams’ rendition of Anna and Brian Tyree Henry’s likable character Detective Little (who is empathetic to Anna’s plight) that stand out.
The Woman in the Window could have been a good homage to all the thrillers that it consciously references and praises. However, it is let down by its shallow reveals, unnecessary deviations, and a frustrating climatic ending that is ultimately, a disservice to its viewers.