Woody Allen will not be ignored. After decades of controversy engulfing his personal life, it would have been easy enough for him to retire and enjoy what must surely be a lot of money, or to just continue working in volitive obscurity, making his ever-worsening movies in Europe for a rapidly shrinking audience. But as viewers of HBO’s new miniseries Allen v Farrow will amply learn, a refusal to back down forms a key part of the pathology animating the man referred to by the mononym of “Woody”.
From a New York magazine interview alongside his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, in 2018 to a mud-slinging memoir last year, he is still doing press and insisting that he is innocent of the claims of sexual abuse levied against him by Mia Farrow’s daughter Dylan. The four-part documentary from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering represents an equal and opposite effort, as Dylan herself and those in her corner meet Woody’s unbudging denials – he has forcefully denied the allegations – with their own steadfast determination. Starting with the title, the series portrays this long-and-deep-running acrimony as a domestic war between two feuding camps. It decisively takes a side, too, but only once a comprehensive presentation of the information has made that much appear to be the lone reasonable option. Coupled with affecting testimonials from Mia and Dylan, telling her story with an immediacy inaccessible to her accounts in the printed word, the reportage does everything short of actually proving guilt. Dick and Ziering leave the matter a he-said-she-said, and methodically show that what he is saying is unconvincing, while what she is saying seems too well-founded (and shattering) to be doubted.
Spanning nearly 40 years and spun around an intricate family tree, this complicated case requires a lot of untangling. To that end, the series is almost diligent to a fault, repeatedly reiterating the same points and analyses already known to anyone with even a passing familiarity. Like so many true-crime nonfiction cinema projects these days – the clear mold from which this approach has been cast – it seems to bulk up its own length for length’s sake, topping out at over four hours. Though more palatable when doled out over a month’s broadcasting, viewing the screeners in a single binge underscores just how much of that time gets eaten up by restatement and rephrasing.
But Ziering and Dick, along with a stable of interview subjects ranging from tertiary characters in the Farrow orbit to film critics contextualizing Woody’s life and works, do convey the key information authoritatively and emphatically. Mia and Woody linked up around 1980, and while he took a shine straight away to her adopted son Moses (a glaring absence in the series, like Woody himself and Soon-Yi, cast here as a coordinated opposition), he would cultivate a more fraught relationship to young Dylan, adopted by the couple in 1985. As an adult, she recounts him allegedly smashing her face into a plate of spaghetti and other enraged outbursts, an enmity which culminated in her allegation at age seven that she had been sexually violated by her father. Woody countered that the girl had been coached into a false confession by Mia, furious with him upon her then-recent discovery that he had been conducting an affair with the college-aged Soon-Yi.
One of the miniseries’ primary objectives is to expose the apparent lapses in the justice system that exonerated Woody in the 90s, even as his reputation now sinks deeper into the toilet with each passing year. He filed for custody of Moses, Ronan, and Dylan in 1992 to get Mia on the defensive, a trial that would unduly come to stand as a referendum on his innocence. Ziering and Dick question the results that shot down both his custody bid and the accusations of sexual abuse, drawing attention to a Connecticut district attorney lacking in zeal and pivotal psych evaluations since discredited. Woody’s legal team did everything in its power to cast Mia as a vindictive manipulator and Dylan as the impressionable child in her thrall, but the mainstream embrace of feminism clarifies that those attacks were largely rooted in misogynistic notions of hysterical, untrustworthy women.
In an effort to touch on everything, some sub-topics (separating the art from the artist for Woody fans, the scuttled release of his latest film A Rainy Day in New York) get addressed so glancingly, they’d be best omitted. But however overinflated, the series has a lucid sense of its central image: that of a family ripped in half, with the kids left to choose sides. Like them, all the public can do is believe one set of premises or the other. Did a man famed for his well-documented, self-confessed attraction to teenage girls cross a line with his daughter, or did the Farrows, one of whom has a name synonymous with defense for abused women, concoct and spend their whole lives defending a conspiracy as a spiteful response to a sexual indiscretion from nearly 30 years ago? Dick and Ziering’s presentation hones Occam’s razor to a point sharp enough to draw blood.