‘The Woman in the Window’ doesn’t even build a fence to sit on: The Pitfalls of Reimagining a Classic

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Cinemas have reopened this week, but one of the most anticipated releases of May, The Woman in the Window, directed by Joe Wright, has been confined to the now all-too-familiar content jungle of Netflix. To tell the truth, this is a movie that belongs on a laptop instead of the big screen. With a star-studded cast, it may not seem that way on paper—Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman and Anthony Mackie are all masters of their craft—but a series of uninspiring performances fail to breathe any life into the equally uninspired writing, despite the story itself being one of initial critical acclaim. A New York Times Bestseller adapted for the screen by an award-winning playwright seems a match-winning combo at face value, but turbulence in production swiftly put an end to that.

Either way, that’s a discussion of a completely different nature, this is a criticism of another one of the film’s major flaws. It’s simply too undecided on what it wants to be—a therapy film, committed to dealing with the spectre of mental health, or a potential rival to the Hitchcockian masterpiece with which it shares half its name? Instead of applauding either, the final product hesitates in No Man’s Land, caught in the crossfire. A giant red flag is hoisted before a single word of vanilla dialogue is scraped from the ice-cream tub of flavourless lines, sentenced to only be heard through tiny laptop speakers.

The camera moves slowly across Anna’s (that’s the main character if, like me, you’d forgotten her name already) darkened hallway, passing a computer screen on which glitches the pained face of Rear Window’s protagonist, L.B. Jeffries. And that’s it. It is not endorsed; it is not condemned. The Woman in the Window doesn’t even build a fence to sit on. Who is even watching it, by the way? Maybe editor Valerio Bonelli snuck the clip into the final cut as a form of subliminal messaging, instructing us to close the Netflix tab and head to 123movies to watch its older, serious brother in all of its 240p glory. I’ve done both and it is a vastly more enjoyable experience.

The film itself centres on Adams’ Anna Fox, an agoraphobic child psychologist with a penchant for wine-drinking and window-watching. She lives alone, separated from her husband (Mackie) and daughter, owing to an initially unclear mental health problem. But when a new family moves in across the road, Anna finally has something to do with herself, watching them from the window. After befriending the wife, Jane (Moore), Anna is shocked to see her murdered through the window, with the attacker’s identity obscured. Naturally, the unrealistically woeful NYPD do little to compensate for Anna’s hallucinations, aka the unclear mental health problem, as the plot thickens with husband, Alastair (Oldman), turning up to the house with his real wife—who it is not Julianne Moore. This revelation leads to another, Anna’s agoraphobia is in fact a result of the death of her husband and daughter in a car crash that she caused – how unique.

Horrified when the police reveal this information, she records a suicide note, planning to end her pain. But to tell you the truth, the potential gravity of this event is wasted by Fox’s blank performance and a hail of gratuitous jump-scares. Honestly, more than one of those is caused by Anna literally forgetting she has a tenant in the basement. Ultimately, the murder is solved in a sickeningly melodramatic fashion and Anna is miraculously cured of her agoraphobia after killing the murderer in a traumatic fight on a rain-soaked rooftop. Ta-da.

So, the pitfalls of reimagining a classic. It’s hard to say whether that was the exact intention, given that this was a bestselling book beforehand, but by having Rear Window play at the start of a film, it’s hard to ignore. Both films’ concepts are the same, only difference is Hitchcock executes John Michael Hayes’ electric script with atomic precision. There is no confusion—the simple concept is delivered with pure clarity from the outset. Hitchcock gives us a patient tour of the courtyard and neighbouring apartments, establishing the geography of the setting, then presents a wordless but complete picture of L.B. Jeffries, his protagonist. In fact, we learn as much as we need to know of Jeffries in that one-minute segment than we learn of Anna throughout her whole film. Where there is clarity in image, there is clarity in story too, with Hayes using the classic B story of romance as Jefferies grapples with the idea of marrying his socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont. The B and A stories intertwine like twisting vines, augmenting each other but not compromising each other. At peak efficiency, the story uses some of the other windows to teach Jeffries lessons about his stance on love. Even the score, coming from Franz Waxman, cleverly charts Jeffries personal journey across its acts, mirroring his frustrations at the midpoint whilst blossoming into completion as his diligent efforts are rewarded at the dénouement.

Compare this to the muddled, back and forth chicanery of The Woman in the Window, and the chasm between the two becomes obvious. Chicanery drives a killer blow in the momentum of its plot, whereas Hitchcock lets his suspense build, pulling Jeffries and the man he suspects to be the murderer, Lars Thorwald, closer together despite their physical distance. Thorwald is the perfect antagonist, a sullen faced, ‘13th Angry Man’ villain, realistically sweaty and exhausted urban businessman, compared with The Woman in the Window’s knock off Norman Bates and you’ve got yourself some polar opposites. FYI the detail of the cat allergy does them no favours either. This quibble aside, the suspense Hitchcock creates nullifies the need for any great nemesis, with the agonizing pauses being the things we truly fear the most. When Jeffries mistakenly reveals himself to Thorwald, we are given a staggering two minutes and twenty seconds of agonizing silence, while the wheelchair-bound hero prepares for the killer to enter his room. The incomparable Jimmy Stewart plays these moments to perfection (Grace Kelly is fabulous throughout the film too, by the way; their chemistry is perfect), as he does for the whole film, embodying anxiety as he frantically gathers weapons of self-defence. It is pure cinema. Meanwhile, Joe Wright, who actually does an admirable job trying to carry the film towards an entertaining conclusion, resorts to using the dramatic dolly-in as a defibrillator to revive it as it repeatedly threatens to die.

Within this feverish masterpiece lies a debate that still rings true today—are we still responsible for our neighbours? Are we concerned and interested, or just nosy? Are humans simply voyeuristic pleasure-seekers? Once the suspense-induced adrenaline wears off, Rear Window still remains in our minds. The same can’t be said for its impersonator.

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