The crime drama and its cousin noir are often misidentified as wholly, or at least primarily, masculine genres, where the bodies of women are soundboards off which the reverberations of toxic, masculine drives can be heard. But one reason I’m so taken by these genres is its women: The luminescent Sharon Stone in Casino. Michelle Pfeiffer, dangerous as a freshly sharpened blade, in Scarface. Gloria Grahame’s transcendent, tricksy appearances in everything from In a Lonely Place to The Big Heat. The magnificent yearning of Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. Jane Fonda moving with utter potency in Klute. Barbara Stanwyck descending the stairs in her introduction in Double Indemnity, revealing in each step the fatal pull of her character. But what happens when the emotional terrain of the film becomes their primary domain? What happens when these characters — who too often exist in the margins and are rarely granted the defining perspective — move to the center?
Julia Hart, who directed and co-wrote I’m Your Woman (which hits theaters on Friday and premieres on Prime Video on Dec. 11), seems to have these questions and their possible answers in mind and to be aware of not only the history of these genres but their possibilities. The film is set in the 1970s but homes in on a character that could easily exist in a liminal space within the genre’s maneuvers: Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), the wife of a quicksilver thief by the name of Eddie (Bill Heck). We’re introduced to Jean, her sullen mien, and the lacquered image she fashions over it. Her blonde hair cascades in waves. She languidly smokes a cigarette. She wears a sheer magenta gown with the kind of ease that suggests beauty isn’t just an interest of hers but a guiding principle. It’s something the film deliciously takes advantage of thanks to the precise costume design by Natalie O’Brien. By the time the looping bubblegum-pink opening title appeared onscreen, I knew I would be enthralled by this film.
Jean is cleaved from her life of ease, comfort, and crystalline loneliness by two swift actions that are out of her control: Eddie “gifting” her a baby with scant explanation of where he has come from, and Jean being forced to go on the run in the wake of her husband’s disastrous career decisions. He’s missing from her life, and from the picture, thereafter. Jean fills the hole left by his absence with endless questions that rarely get answered. She’s aided only by Cal (Arinzé Kene), a friend of Eddie’s, who is tasked with guiding her through this new, transitory life to escape the clutches of the criminals her husband’s actions have angered.
The 1970s setting of I’m Your Woman presents as a particular style and posture, rather than a political landscape — at least, that’s how it appears at first blush. I won’t lie, I think cinema is a medium for beauty. Hart, cinematographer Bryce Fortner, and the production and set-design teams employ a dizzying visual language we’re meant to notice. Watching this film, I marveled at its creamy color palette, the leather jackets glinting in the stray beams off a disco ball, and the way amber light filters in through gauzy, draped windows, lending a geometric backdrop to the focal point of a shot, the shocked planes of Brosnahan’s face. The camera glides over wood-paneled walls and gold-flecked wallpaper. (The twinkling piano score and Aretha Franklin soundtrack accentuate the film’s moodiness.) But beauty isn’t enough for me to love a film the way I love I’m Your Woman. In watching Jean interact with Cal, I wondered if the film would explore the racial politics sitting beneath their exchanges. Blessedly, it does.
Jean quickly reveals herself to be a jejune figure who is so utterly dependent on men she doesn’t know how to function. It’s evident she is pulled toward Cal, or at least increasingly reliant upon him, as she attempts to demarcate the bounds of her new life. She can’t do it herself. “I’ve never been on my own,” she says, exasperated, to Cal at one turning point in the film. This need to define herself, to come into her own, gives the movie a rich arc that it treats delicately. Jean is forced to grow up. At times, the character grates with her entitlement and her inability to see beyond her own pain, but I found those qualities fascinating. She juggles being a new mother to Harry with the anxious pressures of her predicament. She’s occasionally a touch paranoid, looking for her fate to turn in every shadow and along every corner. When a neighbor, Evelyn (Marceline Hugot), extends her grace — with a suspicious, desperate edge to the kindness — Jean must follow her instincts. We learn about her miscarriages, which add a different contour to her loneliness. What makes the particulars of her arc intriguing is how much Jean stumbles toward some sense of independence and strength — a note that isn’t ham-fistedly made but is handled with care.
Jean’s growth is hastened by the presence of Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), Cal’s wife, who brings along their young son, Paul (De’Mauri Parks), and Cal’s emotionally incandescent father, Art, (Frankie Faison). In many ways, the film’s spell could easily have been broken if it had fallen into the trap of using these Black characters merely as support for Jean’s awakening. But Hart demonstrates an awareness of Jean’s privilege and its material effects. Consider when Cal and Jean are rudely awakened on the side of the road by a cop who keeps asking her if she’s being bothered, as if the only reason this white woman and Black man would be in the same car is if he had forced her into it. Jean successfully spins a lie. It’s her white femininity and all the trappings it represents that saves them. As the film continues, Teri becomes more and more intriguing. Bits of information float to the surface, suggesting, then confirming, that she has links to Eddie that Jean doesn’t yet realize. At one point, the two women have an enlightening conversation:
Jean: It’s worse because we have a kid.
Teri: Nothing’s worse for you.
Jean: You don’t know that.
Teri: Yeah, I do.
In this moment, the lines of race and gender are made clear. I appreciate Hart’s effort to keep this dynamic between the characters thrumming just beneath the surface, marrying narrative elegance and political awareness without feeling pedantic. In writing reviews and even in talking about movies in intimate settings with friends, I try not to judge a film by what it could have been, yet I can’t help but imagine a version of I’m Your Woman in which Teri is the lead. Blake plays her with sagacious splendor. Seriously, cast her in more projects, Hollywood. Teri is smart, in control, steady, and deeply in love with her family. She isn’t a one-note fixture meant to uphold Jean’s story but a forceful figure with a resonant interior life of her own. Honestly, every Black actor in the film is amazing: Kene brings a solemnity to Cal, Faison proves again how a legend can capture the spotlight, and Parks as young Paul brings a quiet sensibility that really struck me. This isn’t to say that Brosnahan doesn’t transfix. She is most recognizable from the television show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, in which she plays the impossibly beloved lead in a saccharine confection whose tone she can’t help but reflect; it’s an empty performance, which is why I was so taken with her here as she gently peels back the layers of a character. In the ending, the camera stays fixed on Jean’s face as she drives away from a scene of untold violence. Eddie, pointedly, had never let her drive. On Brosnahan’s face, we can see the boundless determination and possibility that now exists within her character.
The reality for women in the 1970s was both bleak and full of fiery feminist invention. It wasn’t until that decade that women were allowed to get credit cards and bank accounts on their own. It wasn’t until 1978 that laws began to be adjusted to more accurately reflect the truth of marital rape. This was a decade of monumental upheaval for women, for Black folks, for this country. One can’t help but bring this knowledge to the film. But I’m Your Woman doesn’t simply spit up these facts; they exist behind the relations between all of its characters. I’m Your Woman could easily have fashioned Jean’s story into one meant only for a certain modern “feminist” resonance. She could have spoken sassy one-liners intended to put down the men in her life and the patriarchal system that shapes her trajectory. The story could have ignored the racial politics of its narrative. It could have easily been a vacuous parade of period grit glossed up for our age. But it’s not. It’s something more slippery and compelling: the simply rendered story of a woman trying to stand on her own.
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