Of all the witness statements with the air of truth about them in the first episode of the four-part documentary series Allen v. Farrow, only one raises a smile rather than prompting a queasy feeling. Not that the smile lasts long.
The statement is actress Mia Farrow’s account of what happened in 1992 after she stumbled upon a pile of Polaroids of her 21-year-old adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn in the apartment of the 56-year-old filmmaker Woody Allen, Farrow’s partner of 12 years.
They weren’t any old Polaroids. “They wouldn’t put them in Playboy. They were, I don’t know, Hustler pictures or something,” says Farrow, adding in that folksy way of hers: “Really, really raunchy pictures.”
“The next thing I know, Woody had entered my apartment, because he had a key, and I was saying, ‘Get out, get out, you’ve got to get out.’ And then Woody was there for, like, four hours, just talking and talking and talking.”
Farrow shakes her head, sharing the exasperation of so many of the women characters who have appeared opposite Allen in his comedies. Characters Farrow has in some cases played herself.
Talking and talking and talking. Funny and adorable in Hannah and Her Sisters when he’s TV writer Mickey angst-ing his way through yet another existential crisis with assistant Marge Simpson (or at least an assistant played by the actress who voices Marge Simpson, Julie Kavner). Less so when you’ve discovered his character Isaac’s affair with 17-year-old high school student Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) in Manhattan was something of a dry run for what he’s doing now with one of your daughters.
But Allen v. Farrow isn’t about what Allen did with Soon-Yi. That’s just setting the scene; setting the tone. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary is about what Allen is alleged to have done with, or to, Dylan, the daughter he and Farrow adopted together, aged seven when the allegations were first made later in 1992.
“I remember my Mom told me and [my brother] Ronan that Daddy took naked pictures of Soon-Yi,” says Dylan. “And that was sort of the first instance that I thought, ‘Oh, it’s not just me.’”
Allen sharing a bed with Dylan with both in their underpants only. Allen’s finger lingering “suggestively” between Dylan’s buttocks while applying sunscreen. Allen with his head in Dylan’s lap. Allen directing Dylan on how to suck his thumb and what to do with her tongue – “And I think that lasted a while. It felt like a long time.”
There is gaslighting aplenty.
The alleged activities – and there are worse to come – are lurid, but the documentary isn’t. We are 10 minutes from the end of the first episode before the word paedophile is uttered; even then it is only once, with Farrow saying how she had refused to believe Allen could be one, wanting to believe he was innocent.
The viewer wants to believe so too. But as the allegations accumulate, the possible innocent explanations are harder to accept and Allen’s claim that they are the “bizarre concoctions of a woman [ie Mia Farrow] scorned” increasingly stretches credulity.
Dick and Ziering tell their story slowly and methodically, without recourse to melodramatic music or risible re-enactments, using instead Farrow’s extensive home video footage. Their camera stays steadily on the faces of those making the allegations, allowing us to read the subtlest inflections of their expressions.
Those making the allegations include, most notably, Dylan herself, now aged 35. It’s in the nature of sexual abuse that it often comes down to ‘she said, he said’ and to who most convincingly has that air of truth, definitive truth being damnably difficult to establish without harder physical evidence.
In Allen v. Farrow, though, alongside ‘she said, he said’ there is ‘she also said’ (Mia Farrow), and ‘she said too’ (a babysitter friend of the family), and ‘she said as well’ (an older friend of the family), ‘and she said’ (one of Mia’s sisters), plus another ‘he said’.
These witnesses all support Dylan, with the second ‘he’ Ronan Farrow, Mia and Allen’s only birth child together and the journalist who in the New Yorker magazine has led reporting on such #MeToo offenders as Harvey Weinstein.
But after nearly 30 years of “sleepless nights and panic attacks because of one man”, after years of Allen dismissing her allegations, citing court and agency rulings that aren’t always as exculpating as he’d have us believe, Dylan is the one whose air of truth resonates strongest.
There is something all too familiar from other such cases when she says: “I internalised it in a sense that I felt that if I felt weird about it that was on me. That it was my fault and that was because I was doing something wrong.”
Likewise when we hear how she went from being outgoing and effervescent to shy and withdrawn. She would run and hide when Allen – with what one witness calls his “smothering energy” – visited (he and Farrow and her children, and later his children too, famously keeping separate residences at his insistence).
Mia Farrow’s self-blame is recognisable too. “It’s the great regret of my life that I wasn’t perceptive enough. It’s my fault. I brought this guy into our family. There’s nothing I can do to take that away.”
For all his talking and talking and talking in his own films, Allen doesn’t do much of it here, having refused to take part, although he has elsewhere reiterated his denials and dismissed the documentary as a “hatchet job riddled with falsehoods” and a “shoddy hit piece”.
For Allen’s voice, the documentary relies on unauthorised audio extracts from his autobiography of last year, Apropos of Nothing, although fortunately for him they haven’t (so far) included its leering lines about “stacked miracles”, “dynamite blondes”, a “little amuse-bouche”, “delectable bohemian little kumquats”, actress Christina Ricci being “plenty desirable”, Scarlett Johansson being “sexually radioactive”, etc.
These are lines that could lead you to believe Allen was the director of the American Pie movies, not Annie Hall. (Oh well. Lah di dah, lah di dah, la la.)
Allen’s absence makes this first episode very much the case for the prosecution; more Farrow v. Allen than Allen v. Farrow.
The documentary does, however, allow for the complicated emotions of such cases, with Mia Farrow still twinkling with delight as she remembers – pre-Polaroids and the allegations – her and Allen turning the lights on and off in their fabled separate apartments across Central Park in a private romantic semaphore that said, “I love you”.
We hear Dylan Farrow saying Allen “is somebody I loved more than anybody else and it’s taken me a long time to reconcile that you can love somebody and be afraid of them”.
Hopefully, later episodes will present more of the case for the defence so viewers can make up their minds based on the arguments on both sides, not just one, powerful though it is. This is especially necessary in a case contested on so many fronts.
The first episode ends with token disclaimer text about Allen denying the allegations, such as you get in newspaper reports of ongoing court cases.
The trial continues.
Allen v. Farrow (Neon, new episodes each Monday).