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above: Amanda Seyfried in Things Heard & Seen (Netflix)

In the Dark

Seeing Through a Glass Darkly

The Woman in the Window

Directed by Joe Wright ◆ Written by Tracy Letts from the novel by A. J. Finn  ◆ Produced by 20th Century Studios ◆ Distributed by Netflix

Things Heard & Seen

Directed and written by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, based on the novel All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage ◆ Pro-duced by Likely Story ◆ Distributed by Netflix

Two spooky films concerned with things that go bump in the night are the topic of this month’s column. To thrill the audience is the prerequisite for such films—neither fully executes that mission.

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Anna Fox in Woman in the Window, a dour account of a 40-year-old child psychologist who suffers so miserably from agoraphobia she hasn’t been out of her Manhattan apartment for 10 months. Further complicating matters, she’s become addicted to tranquilizers which she ill-advisedly washes down with large glasses of wine. The combination renders her a nearly catatonic mope as she wanders aimlessly through her large Manhattan apartment.

Adams is a popular American actress whose roles have shown off her range over the past 20 years. From her 2008 turn in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day to her several performances as Superman’s love interest, Lois Lane, she seems to have become the go-to gal in popular film entertainment. She was and is exceptionally pretty in a down-home American way and possesses an enviable voice for both drama and singing. Given this, I had to wonder why this usually spirited actress took on this depressive role. Maybe she was attracted to the challenge of playing against type.

As I watched the film, I found it depressing. This isn’t a critical judgment; it’s merely an observation of what I think the director Joe Wright intended. Yet it doesn’t follow that the film is any less a failure.

Even allowing for a ton of dramatic license, the film is too heavy by half. Adams as usual gives a convincing performance, but who wants to watch a clinically depressed middle-aged woman wandering about her dismal apartment in her bathrobe for two hours under the influence of powerful sleep aids, which cause her to hallucinate dead relations?

While watching and photographing her neighbors out of boredom, Anna is shocked from her somnolent droopiness when she witnesses a murder happening in a building across the way. Just so we don’t miss the import of this scene, Wright begins the film with a brief shot of Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, his face twisted in agony as he’s being throttled by Raymond Burr, the murderer he photo-graphed killing his wife.

When Anna calls the police to investigate, they clearly doubt her report. This triggers the plot’s primary intrigue, which involves Gary Oldman as neighbor Alistair Russell, his wife, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Fred Hechinger as their autistic son. Since Anna’s specialty is treating autistic children, she forms a bond with the boy, which will lead her to make assumptions that may or may not be true. When the police find out she is being treated with sleep medications that can induce hallucinations, they, of course, doubt her reports.

I can’t go much further without stepping on what meager suspense the film affords. To be fair, the story gathers momentum in its third act if you can wait, but the suspense is not worth the price of the ticket. Why, I can’t say precisely. Maybe it’s a matter of pacing or the handling of implausible material. After all, why doesn’t Anna call upon her doctor to either confirm or discredit her story so she doesn’t have to go through the trauma of being arrested for making a spurious criminal charge?

Wright’s narrative, based on a novel by A. J. Finn, has graced this film with some inventive scenes that work very well, especially a shot in which we see Anna talking on the phone between partially closed pocket doors. This visually suggests that her reality is occluded and we are only getting part of the story she’s telling. In another scene, the camera has been set above the brownstone staircase so that we can see the five floors through its windings, suggestive, I suppose of the layers of meaning created by the story’s plot twists. Here and elsewhere, Wright demonstrates his visual artistry, but to little purpose, given that these adornments don’t effectively deepen the story.

Things Heard & Seen is another tale of hallucinations, but ones caused by calculation, not drugs. George Claire, the film’s protagonist, is played by James Norton, a clever, personable man in his 30s whose career as a college professor is not hindered by the fact that he is remarkably handsome. Under a pleasing veneer, however, resides a trickster who will stop at nothing, including murder, to get his way.

When we first meet him, he has stopped by a Manhattan church, where his wife Catherine, an artist played by Amanda Seyfried, is working on restoring an altar painting that’s become somewhat the worse for wear. George announces triumphantly that he’s been appointed a professor of art history at the fictional Saginaw College supposedly located in upstate New York along the Hudson River. He further tells her they must plan to move almost immediately. Catherine, who enjoys her work in the city, is not pleased, but doesn’t object. Explaining her acquiescence to a friend, she notes that she was brought up as a good Catholic girl trained to defer to the men in her life. Meanwhile George is carelessly oblivious to her desires, so off they go.

This is the first hint—well, highway billboard, rather—announcing that all’s not well with this marriage. No sooner settled into academic routine at Saginaw than George is availing himself of coeds who fall for his charm. This alerts his chairman, Floyd DeBeers (a dour F. Murray Abraham), that his most recent hire may have been a mistake.

Then other troubles arise. George had been teaching as an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York City, but had grossly misrepresented himself in his application to Saginaw. In fact, he had forged his recommendation from the chairman of the department. When DeBeers finds out, he tells George he has no choice but to inform Saginaw’s deans. George’s response is swift and brutal.

It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s belief that academic battles were so vicious because the stakes are so low. This observation is given full measure in the events of this film. Without going into detail, I’ll only say that George’s strategy to gain full tenure is more brutal than is typical.

Anyone in academia or interested in its doings should see this film. As a former academic myself, I can say that my blood ran cold at moments as the plot moved inexorably toward its conclusion. I couldn’t help recalling the internecine wrangles I had observed among my colleagues. They put the fierceness of bloodsports to shame.

The acting is exceptional. Seyfried tremulously conveys the suffering of an abused wife. Norton, who played a wise and gentle Anglican pastor in the BBC series Grantchester and an intrepid journalist in Mr. Jones, inhabits his role as a tyrannical bully so well that you feel honor bound to hate him. I shouldn’t overlook Natalia Dyer, the post-grad siren who, with mini-mal effort, leads the willing George astray.

But I was most impressed with the film’s inclusion of the Hudson River Valley painters who flourished in the first quarter of the 19th century, especially Thomas Cole, whose four allegorical canvases, entitled “The Voyage of Life,” seek to represent an individual’s progress from childhood to death. These painters were influenced by the Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, who propounded the idea that our earthly lives are complemented by our existence in eternity. They produced realistic works that emphasize the small-ness of humans in dark immense woodland settings that literally overshadow them.

I first saw these canvases in The Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the wing that harbors the works of the Hudson painters is a refreshing reminder that painting doesn’t have to follow the edicts of modern art to be great. Simple realism wins the day in my book.

And in George’s also. The spiritual grandeur of these paintings is a perfect contrast to the pettiness of George’s ambition. He has “borrowed” the realistic paintings of his cousin, now conveniently dead, and displayed them as if they were his own. A mistake, as it turns out. Some of his new colleagues are familiar with his cousin’s works. As a consequence, he tries to adjust his story but does so feebly and unconvincingly.

Swedenborg’s influence is felt in other ways in Things Heard & Seen—the title itself of comes from Swedenborg’s major work, Heaven and Hell, which purports to address “things heard and seen” from a mystical perspective. These ideas were made concrete by Cole’s final painting in his “Voyage” series, which presents the viewer with a turbulent red ocean overseen by a glaring sun, under which a man in a small sailboat is trying to tack to shore.

In the film, the sailor in Cole’s painting is shown to be George in reality. He’s not trying to find a harbor; he’s intent on escaping the consequences of his vile actions.

This is all heady stuff for a film concerning the destructive forces unleashed by overreaching ambition, but neither is it untoward. What we have in the end is a film with some impressive scenes, but without a clearly developed theme. Too bad. Like The Woman in the Window, there’s much to admire here, but little of it is executed satisfactorily.

George McCartney

George McCartney

George McCartney, a professor of English at St. John's College, is film editor for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition (Transaction).

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