By Richard Chachowski
HBO’s new documentary miniseries, “Allen v. Farrow,” is upsetting to say the least.
The show, set to reexamine the sexual assault allegations made against controversial filmmaker Woody Allen, will be four episodes long, and if they’re anything like the first episode, the series will likely only get more uncomfortable, unsettling and difficult to watch from here on out.
Throughout the show’s first episode, audiences are offered a close, personal look into the lives and early childhoods of Mia Farrow’s children in the 1970s and ‘80s, as told from the perspective of Farrow and the children at the center of the documentary.
The episode can be a lot to unpack, namely knowing who’s whose adopted child and who’s whose biological child.
By the time Farrow first met Allen in the early ‘80s, she had four adopted children and three biological children from her previous marriage to composer André Previn. With Allen, Farrow adopted another child, a baby girl named Dylan, and later gave birth to Allen’s son, Satchel (now known as Ronan Farrow). As both Farrow and Allen claimed, these children were almost entirely raised and cared for by Farrow, as Allen stated he wanted nothing to do with raising a child in any way, although he did formally co-adopt Dylan and another of Farrow’s adopted children, Moses.
Confusing? Absolutely. It’s a lot to take in, with one feeling almost like you need a map or chart to keep track of who was adopted by who or who was raised by who.
However, the series does a good job at giving a slightly condensed version of the family, focusing on the children at the center of Allen’s alleged sexual abuse, with a particular light shined on Dylan, Ronan, Moses, and one of Farrow’s older adopted children, Soon-Yi Previn, who Allen would eventually marry. It’s a small blessing that I thank the filmmakers for, and while it perhaps doesn’t do necessarily as much justice to the other children in Farrow’s family who are barely mentioned — although in a documentary that deals with such a dark story in the family’s past, would they even want to be mentioned? — the filmmakers do a good job at pointing the camera lens at the main players in the case rather than mapping out an entire family tree.
Regardless of how confusing it may be sorting out the Farrow-Allen family, “Allen v. Farrow” is far more unsettling than it is anything else. The first half of the episode focuses more on the basics, such as the people involved in the case, how Allen met Farrow, and what his relationship to Farrow and her children were like.
The second part of the episode then turns to the more graphic aspects of the story, mainly the alleged sexual and “over-attentive” relationship Allen had with some of Farrow’s adopted children, especially then-infant Dylan and the older Soon-Yi.
It’s in the latter half of the episode that audiences will probably have the hardest time getting through, as the descriptions of Allen’s alleged abuse is more than a little nauseating, with the parties who provide the actual descriptions of the alleged assaults stating what happened with stomach-turning bluntness. Keep in mind, too, this is only the first episode of the show — no doubt the descriptions will get only more graphic and nausea-inducing as the show goes on.
The documentary itself may come off as a little one-sided, using only excerpts from Woody Allen’s new book, “Apropos of Nothing,” which Allen himself provides the narration for as a stand-in for Allen’s side of the story.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all saying this documentary is fictional or the descriptions of Allen are exaggerated in any way. The show’s full of a lot of compelling evidence and first-hand testimony that makes Allen’s reported sexual abuse somewhat damning, and paints his parenting style and relationship to Farrow’s kids as strange in nature (as Farrow and Dylan both stated, Allen seemed to want to spend time exclusively with Dylan than with the other children, with Dylan at one point stating she felt “smothered” whenever Allen was around).
Obviously, nothing has been definitively proven in a court of law that shows Allen is guilty of anything. However, “Allen v. Farrow” still tells at least one side of the case without holding anything back, and is able to at least inform the audience of the specific allegations up against Allen with a lot of evidence supporting their claim.
If you’re a fan of Woody Allen, this … hurts to see. It’s going to be tough, for example, to ever revisit any of Farrow and Allen’s 13 collaborations and see them the same way, or even any of Allen’s films in general.
However, in this day and age, I would highly urge audience members to watch this, fan of Allen or not, in order to hear Farrow and her children’s side of things. Like any sexual abuse allegation, it’s important to hear from the victim first and foremost, and not drown out their voices by thinking ahead of time “I don’t believe you,” or taking the accused’s side before they’ve even heard the evidence or listened to the claims.
Judging by the first episode of “Allen v. Farrow” alone, this show is certainly not for the faint of heart. If the first episode is any indication of what’s to come, there’s more than likely going to be further graphic descriptions of sexual assault ahead.
Given how sharply this documentary has already divided critics and audiences (as of now, the show has gained favorable reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and RogerEbert.com, but has been heavily criticized by IMDb users and in such publications as “The Hollywood Reporter”), it’s really up to the individual viewer to make up their own mind on the series.
An audience member unfamiliar with the case may feel more inclined to accept Farrow’s story, while others might think the entire thing is a “hatchet job” (the term Allen himself used to describe it in a public statement he released following the airing of the episode). In his review of the first episode, CNN’s Brian Lowry termed it perfectly by stating, “Despite the painstaking research, viewers might come away not entirely sure what they ‘know,’ as opposed to what they believe.”
Either way, though, I would urge audiences to check this series out, but fair warning: prepare for a difficult watch ahead of you. At the very least, the show does a good job at shedding a ton of new light on what really happened between Farrow and Allen, a subject Farrow and her children have been somewhat reluctant to talk about in the past.