There’s an odd startle to the opening scene of the 70s-set Amazon thriller I’m Your Woman, as a lounging housewife is met with an unusual surprise. Jean (The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’s Emmy magnet Rachel Brosnahan) has accepted a lonely life of waiting; for a husband to come home from work, for a domestic adeptness to finally arrive and for a pregnancy to one day turn into a birth. When Eddie (Bill Heck) returns that day, he’s holding a baby which he spookily tells Jean is now hers. She’s understandably confused but also resigned to never quite knowing what’s behind the curtain, married to a criminal whose exploits are forever in the dark.
In the Fast Color writer-director Julia Hart’s AFI festival opener, there’s a keen awareness of the power of the unspoken, especially in a world such as this. Initially, at least, exposition is kept at bay, the bigger picture hidden from Jean and us. As she starts to settle into life as a mother, there’s another surprise. She’s woken up in the middle of the night by one of Eddie’s colleagues and told that she has to go on the run, minimal questions asked. Waiting in the car outside is Cal (Arinzé Kene), her new protector, and the two speed off, an uncertain future ahead.
For the first half of I’m Your Woman, Hart and her enthralling actors barely put a foot wrong. In deciding whether to make a pacey crime thriller or a thoughtful character-driven drama, Hart bravely decides to do both and, for a while, neatly juggles smarts and suspense. Jean is not an easy character to decipher, a woman who might have empty days to fill but who hasn’t found the time or space to figure out who she really is without a man attached. There’s fire beneath the surface but it’s been dampened by a lopsided marriage and there’s a thrill to seeing her come of age while also trying to stay alive. Brosnahan, a dynamic actor unfairly tainted by what’s become a rather safe and tiresome comedy series, is allowed to work with a far richer set of tools here. Even when the film dulls, she remains sharp.
There’s a brisk, functional chemistry between her and a commanding Kene that grows warmer by the minute, crescendoing in a charming diner scene where she tells him how she makes her baby laugh. There’s such confidence behind the camera, too: Hart and the cinematographer Bryce Fortner find art within the genre without indulgence. It’s an incredibly stylish, at times gorgeously composed, film with the sort of specific, vibrant period re-creation that makes you want to step inside, or at least nab some of Kene’s dapper outfits. It’s then such a disappointment that the film falls a few rungs in the second half, not exactly crashing to the ground but loosening its grip on us, a great film slowly morphing into an OK one. The more we find out, the more we’re dragged into the light with Jean, the less interesting the whole thing becomes. The rote details of the crime plot and the soapy nature of Jean’s connection to Cal and those he introduces to her, including his wife, Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), and father, Art (Frankie Faison), don’t grab us by the throat in the way they should. Hart’s deft ability to mix brain and brawn simultaneously fades, the film struggling to even do either with enough panache as it careers toward an emotionally empty finale.
Even when it’s coasting, the cast still works hard to sell what they’re given and it remains visually handsome until the very end, an immersive and slickly captured last-act car chase proving a standout. But as the minutes dwindled, I felt as distant as Jean feels at the beginning, ironically finding less as she’s finding herself despite Brosnahan’s committed performance. It’s a frustrating, untethering experience, watching a film lose a star it worked so hard to get in the outset, something buried underneath the bad choices it then makes. I’m Your Woman is still worth the ride but it’s one that you might want to jump out of midway.