From Rear Window to Gaslight, movies in which protagonists try to piece together a situation using incomplete or skewed
information have been a staple of the cinema. Most such films have been firmly in the mystery genre, and even those that are not have an aspect of mystery as the lead
character strives to chart a course of action in the absence of clear signals. Three recent movies—to varying degrees, with varying levels of menace, and with varying
success—create nebulous situations that eventually become clear to both the characters and the audience.
The least successful of the three is Joe Wright's The Woman in the Window, with a screenplay by Tracy Letts adapted from a novel by A.J. Finn. The
Woman in the Window was pulled from a theatrical release last year because of the pandemic and is now streaming on Netflix.
Anna Fox (Amy Adams) is an agoraphobic woman living in a cavernous Manhattan brownstone. Doped up on alcohol and medications, she is
bereft of human contact except for her psychiatrist (Letts) and her basement tenant David (Wyatt Russell), with frequent phone calls from her estranged husband Ed (Anthony
One day Anna looks out her window to see a family moving in across the street. Soon Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger), the teenage son of
the family, comes over to introduce himself and gives Anna a gift from his mother, Jane. In the course of the visit, Ethan confesses that his home life is not good.
Anna, a child psychologist by profession, is immediately sympathetic and tells Ethan he can call on her any time.
Not long afterward, Jane (Julianne Moore) comes over herself for a visit. She is obviously an oddball, and just as chemical-dependent as
Anna; despite (or because of) that, she and Anna become fast friends. A few nights later, Anna looks across the way again—to see Jane being stabbed to death.
Anna immediately calls 911. Detective Little (Brian Tyree Henry) shows up, followed quickly by Ethan; Ethan's father Alistair (Gary Oldman), who is outraged at Anna's accusations;
and Jane (Jennifer Jason Leigh)--a different woman from the one Anna met.
From this point, The Woman in the Window becomes a familiar tale of
Anna trying to persuade the authorities of her truthfulness and her sanity, with dark secrets about her past revealed, on cue, in the movie's middle
section. There is nothing in the screenplay that isn't borrowed from other, better movies. Wright doesn't help himself by showing excerpts from those movies, including Rear Window and Laura, on Anna's TV. He and
cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel also don't help the movie or each other by shooting most of the scenes in the same portentous darkness, as if Jason
Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers were poised to leap out of the shadows all at once.
Nevertheless,The Woman in the Window has entertainment value in its
acting, especially that of Amy Adams. Her performance as Anna is a tour de force of desperate emotion; it is immediate and moving even when
everything else around her seems overwrought. Too many of her co-stars, unfortunately, have nothing to do. Leigh, Mackie, and especially Oldman
are criminally wasted. But Moore, Russell, and Henry acquit themselves well, and Hechinger, as he did in News of the World, demonstrates great skill and promise.
For a much more original and powerful example of cinematic disorientation, turn to Amazon Prime, Vudu or Google Play for Florian Zeller's The Father. The movie won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for
Zeller and Christopher Hampton, based on Zeller's play, and a Best Actor Oscar for its star, Anthony Hopkins.
The Father begins with Anne (Olivia Colman) hurrying to a book-lined London flat where her father Anthony (Hopkins) has just fired his
caretaker. He claims the caretaker stole his watch; it turns out to be where he hid it for safekeeping. Anne tells Anthony what she has already told him
many times: she is moving to Paris to be with the new man in her life, and he will have to depend on caretakers from that point on. He can't keep sacking them.
This gives the audience its initial bearings. From then on, all—or nearly
all—is uncertainty. What happened to the picture above the mantelpiece? Is Anne going to Paris or isn't she? Who are these people who keep making
surprise appearances in the flat? (Olivia Williams, Mark Gatiss, Rufus Sewell and Imogen Poots are the actors who help Zeller in keeping
Anthony, and the viewers, off kilter.)
The technical credits in The Father match the excellence of the
screenplay—I admired the soft-edged, dreamlike photography of Ben Smithard—and the supporting actors are superb, especially Colman. But
Hopkins' performance is something else again, reminding us why he is widely considered the greatest living actor in the English-speaking world.
In a sense, his performance in The Father was presaged by his debut screen appearance as Richard the Lion-Hearted in The Lion in Winter. Outwardly
commanding and arrogant, Hopkins' Richard was beset by insecurities he could admit to no one on pain of losing his command and even his life.
With Anthony—a character that shares the actor's first name and even his exact birthdate—the threats are more immediate, as is his need to reach for
certainty. I will not go into detail, because preserving the revelations in Zeller's story is crucial to the film's impact. But I will describe one
standout scene, in which Anthony entertains a visitor by claiming to have been a professional dancer and showing off in front of her. Hopkins'
combination of forcefulness, charm and childishness in the scene is breathtaking, and prepares us for the inevitable end in which (again
without going into detail) Hopkins tears our hearts out. This is a performance of incredible skill, insight, and—above all--courage.
Harry Macqueen's Supernova, on Amazon Prime,presents what could be considered the opposite situation from The Father. Tusker (Stanley Tucci),
an American novelist living in England, is under no illusions that he is in the early stages of dementia. It is Sam (Colin Firth), a concert pianist and
Tusker's partner of many years, who misapprehends what is happening to Tusker. That is borne partly of Sam's love and worry, partly from what Tusker chooses to conceal.
As Supernova opens, Sam and Tusker are headed from London to the Lake
Country in their ancient camper. They plan to attend a party at the home of Sam's sister Lilly (Pippa Haywood) followed by a weekend in an idyllic
rented cottage. Between the usual bickering that long-term partners engage in, details of Tusker's ordeal seep through. But Tusker encourages
Sam's hopes that he can regain some of his equilibrium in working on his latest book.
Sam clings to these hopes until the night of Lilly's party, when he goes out
to the camper alone. He stumbles across Tusker's notebook; what he discovers there is disturbing, but not nearly as disturbing as a separate
document Tusker never intended Sam to see.
Supernova is a moving story of devotion and what happens when that
devotion is mortally tested. Macqueen's understated screenplay provides the basis for Tucci and Firth to give performances of great emotional depth
and power. Dick Pope's beautiful photography of the English countryside adds to the film's impact; so does Macqueen's inclusion in the soundtrack
of a sentimental tune, Elgar's "Salut d'Amour," that speaks to the endurance of true love.
Supernova begins and ends with a view of the night sky and the titular
astronomical phenomenon—a perfect metaphor for the film, which commemorates something beautiful, awe-inspiring, and finite.