A B-movie effort from an A-list production team, Joe Wright’s “The Woman in the Window” buckles beneath its aspirations almost immediately.
Wright and screenwriter Tracy Letts have adapted Dan Mallory’s bestselling novel, which at one point was notorious for plagiarism accusations. (Mallory writes under the pseudonym A.J. Finn.) And the movie itself has been laboring under a shadow of a doubt since it was shot in 2018, which now feels like a lifetime ago.
After some retooling and shelf-sitting, it was acquired by Netflix and arrives with a single overarching ambition: to be considered Hitchcock-ian. Wright telegraphs this goal as clearly as he possibly can right from the start, his camera panning past an actual shot of Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window” before sweeping up and down vertigo-inducing stairwells.
We’ve also got a Stewart-like protagonist in Dr. Anna Fox (Amy Adams). Anna is a psychologist and amateur photographer stuck inside her family’s cavernous Harlem brownstone, due to trauma-induced agoraphobia and anxiety. We don’t know why she’s so vulnerable, but we do get clues from her weekly therapy sessions (with an avuncular Letts) and strained calls with her separated husband (Anthony Mackie) and young daughter (Mariah Bozeman).
Anna has little else to do but to wash down a seemingly endless supply of medications with merlot and to watch some new neighbors move in across the street. Their tentative teenage son, Ethan (Fred Hechinger, “News of the World”), stops by first to say hello, followed by his mother, Jane (Julianne Moore). Though Anna still can’t go outside, it does seem like progress to receive friendly visitors.
But then — while looking out her front window — Anna sees Jane violently murdered by Ethan’s dad, Alistair (Gary Oldman). Only…does she? When she asks the police to investigate, a baffled Detective Little (Brian Tyree Henry) introduces her to Jane, who is perfectly fine. And Alistair, as one would expect, is hardly pleased about being accused of murder.
Still, something’s not right. For one thing, Ethan is clearly trying to protect his dad while hinting at ominous doings. For another, Anna’s tenant David (Wyatt Russell) is becoming less affable and more threatening by the day. Also, there’s the unavoidable fact that Jane is now being played by Jennifer Jason Leigh instead of Julianne Moore.
What’s a woman to do, when nobody believes her? In Anna’s case, she wanders through her shadowy house in a state of constant torment, as Danny Elfman’s neurotic score and Bruno Delbonnel’s off-kilter camerawork amp every moment up to perpetual peril and confusion.
The most admirable quality about the entire production is its near-universal level of commitment. Adams, in particular, is so dedicated to this character that she very nearly holds the film together. We do feel for Anna, who is so sincere and troubled that she trembles at the slightest gust of wind. And — because the sound department is also working hard — there always seem to be gusts of wind, or disquieting sirens, or threatening shouts outside her door. Similarly, costumer Albert Wolsky (“Birdman”) has put together a noticeably bleak collection of oversized pajamas and robes for Anna to wear as she wanders her drafty hallways in an increasing state of deterioration.
But if the scaffolding of suspense is overly ostentatious, actual support remains oddly elusive. Each of the other actors in this high-toned cast is only allowed one or two primary scenes, and most of them bring so much energy into Anna’s enervated life that the film deflates considerably once they’re gone. (The main exception is a weirdly blank Leigh who, Hitchcock-ian name aside, seems to have wandered onto the wrong set.)
The scenes with an empathetic Henry, in particular, hint at a stronger path. Had Wright and Letts focused less on style, they might have found more substance in Anna’s relationship with the one person who wants to believe her. It’s tough to understand why these two formidable talents took so much from “Rear Window,” but left behind the one aspect many people remember best: the connection between Stewart and Grace Kelly. A human bond would have been especially helpful when the twists take some baroque turns that may seem increasingly off-putting to anyone who hasn’t read Mallory’s novel.
Wright’s devotion to his theme is, in a way, commendable, but his single-minded attempts to evoke an iconic master, rather than rely on his own well-proven instincts, ultimately feel like an act of self-sabotage.
“The Woman in the Window” premieres on Netflix May 14.