tv review

Allen v. Farrow Places Dylan Farrow at the Center of Her Own Story

Young Dylan Farrow with her mother, Mia. Photo: HBO

For nearly 30 years, the assertion that Woody Allen molested his 7-year-old daughter Dylan Farrow has been in the public domain, having first been reported by the media while Allen was in the middle of a highly contentious split from his longtime partner, Dylan’s mother, Mia Farrow. We have heard Allen repeatedly deny the allegation and point out that he has never been charged with a crime related to the incident. In more recent years, we have read the words of Dylan Farrow herself, who has consistently reiterated the same thing she said as a child: that, while her mother was running errands and babysitters were otherwise engaged, her father led her into the attic of her mother’s Connecticut country home on an August afternoon in 1992 and sexually assaulted her.

What we hadn’t been able to do until now is actually see a young Dylan Farrow, in 1992, describe what happened to her. That changes in Allen v. Farrow, a four-part HBO documentary series, premiering Sunday night, that reexamines the extremely public conversation about a life-shattering violation. Directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, along with producer Amy Herdy, unearth evidence from the ’90s that hasn’t been given widespread oxygen before, including the much-discussed home videos, filmed by Mia Farrow, of Dylan explaining what her father did to her, information that Allen has characterized for years as a lie Mia Farrow coached their daughter to tell.

After seeing and hearing a wide-eyed, 7-year-old Dylan state matter-of-factly, in her soft, little girl’s voice, that her father “touched her privates” while Farrow asks reasonable follow-up questions, the idea that the child was coached is harder to rationalize than it ever has been, especially after psychologists analyze the tapes on-camera and deem them credible. If you believe Dylan Farrow is telling the truth — and after watching Allen v. Farrow, it is challenging to believe otherwise, if it wasn’t already — that means that Woody Allen is responsible for sexually abusing, then gaslighting, a 7-year-old, an uncomfortable realization that some fans of his work still have a hard time processing.

It is important to note that Dick and Ziering, who have examined issues related to rape and sexual assault in previous documentaries — most recently the Russell Simmons–focused On the Record have made a series that is transparent about its status as a reflection of Dylan’s and Mia Farrow’s perspectives. While we hear Woody Allen’s version of certain events via sound clips from the audio book of his recent memoir, Apropos of Nothing, he did not participate in Allen v. Farrow, which debuts Sunday night. At the end of each episode, Kirby and Ziering include a title card that states that he “denies ever having been violent or sexually abusive with Dylan.”

Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter with her previous husband André Previn and the woman to whom Allen has been married for more than two decades, also did not participate. Neither did Allen and Previn’s two children, nor Moses Farrow, another child adopted originally by Mia Farrow and later by Allen as well. In an interview with The Guardian two months ago, Moses reiterated what he has said before: that Dylan lied about the abuse and that it was his mother, not his father, who was emotionally and physically abusive. In an interview with this magazine in 2018, Previn provided a similar account. That article, written by Daphne Merkin, who disclosed in the piece that she is a longtime friend of Allen, was criticized for being what Allen supporters will likely call this docuseries: too one-sided and potentially biased.

Clearly, it is impossible to review Allen V. Farrow without re-tugging at all of the threads in the complicated, decade-plus personal and professional relationship between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow and its dramatic disintegration. The series certainly retraces the familiar events in the extensively covered scandal: the reveal of Allen’s affair with Previn, which came to light when Mia Farrow discovered nude photos of Soon-Yi, taken by Allen, in his apartment; the incident in the attic with Dylan, which was not the first time that Allen’s behavior toward his daughter had been flagged as inappropriate; the criminal investigations and nasty custody battle that ensued.

But this docuseries isn’t really about Mia Farrow or Woody Allen. Instead, it places Dylan Farrow at the center of her own story. Now a wife and mother herself, she speaks extensively about her parents, her abuse, and the lasting effects of being victimized, then re-victimized, by those who either discounted her story or shoved it aside for convenience’s sake. Her own brother, Ronan Farrow, now famous for his work as a journalist bringing #MeToo stories to light, even admits that when he was initially trying to establish his career, he wanted Dylan to stop talking about the whole mess with her dad.

“She and I had knockdown, drag-out fights where I essentially told her to shut up,” he says. But as an adult, when he read the court documents and evidence in the abuse cases brought against Allen in Connecticut, where the incident with Dylan took place, and in New York, where Allen lived, his reaction was “Well, holy shit. I’ve been turning away from a real miscarriage of justice here.”

Allen v. Farrow is not merely an indictment of Woody Allen or even an indictment of those who have unequivocally stood by him, though some of the actors he has worked with, including Diane Keaton and Scarlett Johansson, don’t come out of this documentary looking particularly great. Really, it’s a damning critique of the institutions and power structures, from Hollywood to New York City’s government to the criminal justice system to the media, that have some investment in making sure that certain men in power stay there. It joins another HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland, which turned Michael Jackson’s long-rumored status as a child abuser into something nearly impossible to refute, as a story about how readily society can turn a blind eye toward abuse when famous people are involved. The series is also about how historically easy it has been to dismiss women and girls — to dub someone like Mia Farrow a vindictive, scorned woman, for example, and then cement that narrative in the press. In that sense, as a look back at the way a celebrity’s personal crisis was covered with 2021 vision, Allen v. Farrow also shares some things in common with the recent The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears. The breadth of what the series tackles makes it much more compelling and thought-provoking than it would have been as a strict rehash of the Farrow-Allen split.

On that more basic level, the doc does a solid job of recontextualizing our understanding of the details surrounding that breakup, as well as Dylan’s relationship with Allen, via the display of numerous home videos; recordings of phone conversations between Allen and Mia Farrow in the wake of the relationship’s collapse; examination of court testimony and documents; and interviews with some of Dylan’s other siblings, family friends who witnessed Allen’s behavior toward Dylan over the years, psychologists, and, notably, Frank Maco, the former Litchfield County, Connecticut, state’s attorney who opted not to prosecute Allen for sex abuse in the 1990s. Maco said then, and repeats now, that he found enough probable cause for an arrest but didn’t want to subject Dylan, who had already told and retold her story many times, to further distress by placing her on a witness stand.

Holes are poked in other aspects of the story that are usually highlighted as proof of Allen’s innocence. A Yale-New Haven Hospital report that concluded Dylan had not been abused is deemed inaccurate, partly because two of the social workers believed Dylan but all notes from their interactions were destroyed. The decision by New York City prosecutors to drop the case against Allen is characterized as the result of a cover-up motivated, in part, by a desire to keep the filmmaker synonymous with Manhattan pumping money into its  economy. (A New York City caseworker who believed Dylan’s account was fired during the brouhaha, then later rehired.) Another contention that Allen has put forward is that Dylan’s recollection of staring at her brother’s train set during the assault in the attic doesn’t add up because there was no train set in the relatively small space. But a sketch of the crime scene by Connecticut police in 1992  includes a drawing of a train track. If the audience for Allen v. Farrow were a jury, they’d likely find plenty of reasons to cast reasonable doubt on Allen’s version of events.

Even after sifting through all the information and interviews in the four episodes, there are still some questions that lack adequate answers. The most obvious one: Why would Allen, in the wake of the exposure of his affair with Previn and knowing that his behavior toward Dylan often raised red flags, do what he did on that August day? Since he denies he abused her, we’ll likely never know for sure. He has faced some professional consequences in the wake of the #MeToo movement’s rise, though, including the suspension of his production contract with Amazon, which led Allen to file a $68 million lawsuit against the company that was subsequently settled.

Others may wonder what Dylan gets out of going on the record on a premium-cable network to discuss the worst day of her life. That’s easier to understand: There is closure in owning your own story, even the most haunting parts of it, the parts that can’t be undone. One of the most remarkable things about Allen v. Farrow is how grounded and strong Dylan seems to be in spite of everything she’s had to confront. Occasionally, feelings of grief or panic interfere. At one point, she has to pause while discussing her father because she involuntarily starts trembling and her teeth begin to chatter. But for the most part, she is comfortable and poised while sharing her feelings about experiences she says were shattering.

“Sometimes when I watch my husband and my daughter together, I feel a little jealous,” she admits while observing her spouse and her little girl, who looks so much like the girl Dylan once was. “It’s bittersweet because I know I’m paying it forward.”

After everything that’s happened to her, Dylan Farrow possesses something that most people would agree that Woody Allen has never had: an unshakeable sense of self-awareness and her responsibility to the wider world.

Allen v. Farrow Places Dylan at the Center of Her Own Story