Allen v. Farrow reminds us that we're part of the problem: Review
The four-part HBO docuseries re-examines Dylan Farrow's allegations of sexual abuse against her father, director Woody Allen, through a 2020 lens.
We are in a golden age of reckoning-by-documentary: Surviving R. Kelly, Leaving Neverland, Untouchable, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich. Now comes HBO's Allen v. Farrow, a painful and exhaustive re-examination of the case against Woody Allen. Though directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering have delivered a damning portrait of the celebrated filmmaker, Allen isn't the only one who should be mortified. So many of the facts presented here have been public for decades — yet only now are we willing to listen.
The four-part series largely follows the well-known version of events told by actress and activist Mia Farrow. Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter of Allen and Mia, was just 7 years old when she first told her mom that Allen sexually molested her while visiting Mia's Connecticut home. It was 1992; Allen reigned as New York's nebbish genius, an Oscar-winning director and screenwriter cranking out one critically beloved film a year. He and Farrow had been dating since 1980. They were New York's power couple — though Allen was the one with the power. Farrow was just the actress muse, fortunate enough to have a brilliant boyfriend who let her appear in his brilliant movies. "For years he had said how lucky I was to work with him," she recalls today. "He said… 'I can replace you in less than two minutes.'"
At the time, Allen and Farrow's relationship was exotically modern: They lived in separate apartments across New York's Central Park. Farrow had seven children, and from the beginning Allen told her he had "no interest" in parenting. Even when they eventually decided to try for a baby together, the arrangement remained the same. "Mia assured me I could participate in rearing a new child to any extent I cared to," notes Allen via an audiobook excerpt of his 2020 memoir Apropos of Nothing. It's one of many times Allen v. Farrow uses the auteur's own words skillfully, as when he describes his first romantic encounter with Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, in episode 2: "We were alone in my screening room, and quite smoothly if I do say so myself, I lean in and kiss her. She is complicit in the escalation."
But back to Dylan. Once the child told her mother that Allen abused her, Mia Farrow took her to the doctor — which prompted a formal investigation. (Allen denies any wrongdoing.) From here, the documentary lays out what would become Allen's pattern of pivot-and-deflect manipulation over the next 13 months, as the investigation and subsequent custody battle played out in the public arena. It was a strategy made all the more effective by a media that found Allen's claims — that Mia Farrow was a "vindictive and self-serving" spurned woman who concocted the abuse claims out of jealousy over Soon-Yi — far more appealing than the ugly alternative.
While Mia Farrow chose to avoid speaking to the press, Allen courted sympathy and retribution in the pages of Time magazine and with self-deprecating sound bites on 60 Minutes. ("I'm 57 — isn't it illogical that I'm going to pick this moment in my life to become a child molester?") The doc artfully illustrates how the director's powerful PR machine drowned out the damning facts — many of which that were testified to in court — that pointed to his guilt. (During their research, the Allen v. Farrow team gained access to tens of thousands of pages of court and police documents which had sat untouched in an attorney's storage space for years.)
The series features new interviews with Mia Farrow, many of her children, family friends, and associates; they discuss Allen's "intense" affection for Dylan and relay eyewitness accounts of his inappropriate behavior with his daughter, whom he adopted (along with Farrow's son Moses) in 1991. "Sometimes he would also kneel in front of her and put his face in her lap"; "His hand went down between her buttocks and kind of lingered there"; "I saw her sucking his thumb, which was really, really weird" — it goes on and on.
At the time, the authorities involved in Allen and Farrow's public battle were openly skeptical about the director's innocence. In denying Allen's bid for sole custody of Dylan and Moses in 1993, Justice Elliott Wilk blasted his "grossly inappropriate" behavior. That same year, Connecticut state's attorney Frank Maco said he had probable cause to prosecute Allen on charges of sexual molestation but opted not to put Dylan through the trauma of a trial.
Allen v. Farrow makes it uncomfortably clear that Dylan's truth was always out there — but we chose to listen to her father, because he had the megaphone of celebrity. It's particularly galling, given how Allen built his brand with movies that romanticized the older-man-libidinous-younger-woman dynamic. (That theme is explored in queasy-making detail in episode 2.) By the time the series jumps ahead to Allen receiving a standing ovation at the Academy Awards in 2002 — well, anyone who was an adult at the time should find it hard not to squirm. What makes Allen v. Farrow all the more devastating is that it isn't packed with explosive revelations — it just puts all the evidence together and lays it at our feet. At times the series meanders and would have benefitted from a tighter edit, especially when it attempts to touch on the broader cultural meaning of Allen's legacy and the Möbius strip dilemma of "separating the art from the artist."
There's always a new generation ready to be horrified at how their elders treated women. See: the recent internet reactions to The Crown's depiction of Princess Diana, or the post-Framing Britney Spears flurry of online disgust about old interviews with Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and so on. Expect more of this come Sunday night, after the first episode of Allen v. Farrow airs. We should be appalled — especially those of us who consumed the scandal as it happened. If only we knew how many more documentaries it will take for us to start finding our conscience in real time. Grade: B
Allen v. Farrow premieres Sunday, Feb. 21, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.