One of the biggest film trends of the 2010s was bestselling novels being adapted into films like Gone Girl and television series like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies, spawning a new era of psychological thrillers. A late addition to the pack: The Woman in the Window, adapting A.J. Finn’s 2018 novel. The film, directed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice) with a screenplay by Tracy Letts (Bug, Killer Joe), was primarily filmed in 2018, but delayed by reshoots in 2019, and its planned 2020 theatrical release was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now releasing on Netflix, the film is a stylish, melodramatic addition to the thriller-adaptation trend, but it falls victim to Letts’ faithfulness to the original book.
Anna Fox (Amy Adams) is an agoraphobe who hasn’t left her house for 11 months. Previously a child psychiatrist, she now spends her days watching her neighbors live out their lives while she mixes alcohol with prescription meditation and talks on the phone with her estranged husband and daughter. The film’s action kicks in when her new neighbors try to visit — teen Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger), and later his mother Jane Russell (Julianne Moore). Soon after their arrival, Anna sees Jane get stabbed in her house, and calls the police before passing out. When she wakes up, the cops are in her house with another woman calling herself Jane Russell, and Ethan is saying Anna has never met his mother.
The mystery of what happened to the woman Anna met, and what’s going on in the house across the street, is muddled by Anna’s unreliable narrator syndrome. It’s a common trope in similar thriller-novel adaptations, like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Anna’s unreliable nature comes from a mix of her medication — which is implied to have side effects, including hallucinations — and her own paranoia, as she spies on the Russell house through a DSLR camera, in shots reminiscent of Rear Window. The film goes all in on the psychological-thriller inspirations, with scenes from the classic noir films Anna watches melding into memories of a past trauma. That event also becomes a secret for the movie to unravel.
The film’s plot is a bit dense on the mystery, though that’s expected, considering the book it’s adaptating. Finn wrote The Woman in the Window in first person, which leaves more room to explain the intricacies of the plot. Instead of adding narration, the trick many book-to-film adaptations use, all the exposition and world-building in the film takes place through conversation, in Anna’s phone calls with her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie) or in her therapy sessions. The slow unraveling of details mixed with the hallucinatory elements make the fine details of the plot a bit hard to follow, but the main mystery runs its course smoothly. The film’s reshoots were prompted by confused audience reactions to initial test screenings, and it’s easy to understand why they might have struggled to follow the story.
The unreliable-narrator trope can inspire audience skepticism, but Wright does a great job of making Anna’s perspective the focal point of observation for the audience as well. He accomplishes part of that through atmosphere, making the molding brownstone where the entire movie takes place both claustrophobic and cavernous through the lighting and staging. The sudden appearances of characters in the house in certain scenes adds to the effect, and so does a stunning scene where the outside world is brought into the brownstone in a setpiece reminiscent of Wright’s 2012 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
The glimpses of other brownstones also rely on Anna’s POV, as we see them through her camera lens; the scenes that peer into other houses are at a remove and within Anna’s view at the same time. There’s no irony where the audience knows something before Anna does, which helps make the film an engrossing psychological thriller.
As expected from the big names on the roster, all of the cast gives commendable performances. Adams’ sharpness as caustic, paranoid Anna includes a vulnerability that fills out her character, and her performance holds the movie together. Every actor, including Julianne Moore and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the two Jane Russells, fill their parts admirably, even if they only have a few scenes. Hechinger is formidable as Ethan, striking a balance between sensitive and guarded, and holding his own in scenes with Adams. Gary Oldman also plays a great obvious villain as patriarch Alistair Russell.
The faults of The Woman in the Window are in part unavoidable, because of the faithfulness of the adaptation and the intricacies of its source material. Anna is belligerent straight out of the gate, without much character-building to explain why. She reads like an over-the-top example of an unlikable female protagonist. Anna’s tenant David, played by Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s Wyatt Russell, feels like a pawn dropped in to be an obvious suspect, rather than a full character. All the plot elements, red herrings, dramatic encounters, and emotional breakdowns that made the novel a bestseller translate to the screen as melodramatic. A frantic woman calling out an open window, “Where is your mother?” to a teenager: melodrama.
While The Woman in the Window succeeds at being a faithful adaptation of the book, letting readers see the story play out beat for beat on screen, as a movie, it’s so dramatic that it’s a bit silly. Not every book that generates enough buzz is suitable for the screen, and filmmakers can’t always bully their way through a faulty plot by adding style and A-list actors. The Woman in the Window tries admirably, but fails to make a masterpiece out of a book-club read.
The Woman in the Window is now streaming on Netflix.