Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) is unconventional. She floats through existence watching her husband Eddie (Bill Heck) come and go. Unable to have a child, Eddie manages to procure one with little questioning from Jean, just happy to have a baby. He is a criminal, after all, and Jean knows his associations in the underworld. Until now, aside from the baby, it has had little impact on her. Awoken in the middle of the night by one of Eddie’s friends, she is ushered outside where a man named Cal (Arinzé Kene) is waiting for her. The criminal side of the city has been turned on its head by Eddie, and now Jean and baby Harry are in trouble, possible targets of retribution. Now, they must run and ask no questions. Directed by Julia Hart, I’m Your Woman is stripped down, lean, and absolutely enthralling. Set in the 1970s, it is a throwback to classic storytelling, focusing on mood and characters without unnecessary overplotting. It is a story of a woman cast to the side, left in the dark and now having to fight to find her way out.
Having seen Hart’s Fast Color, it is apparent that her skill resides in taking familiar genres and offering alternative, almost unpredictable takes on them. For Fast Color, her twist was an everyday woman with superpowers while the world was trying to hunt her down. One could argue Jean has superpowers of her own in I’m Your Woman with the world also trying to hunt her down, but here she is a woman who is a stranger to her own life. Eddie shuts her out, and locks her into the home (she is not allowed to drive, for example). She is a classic 1970s housewife, constrained by her controlling husband and now thrust into a situation she does not understand. In contrast to similar crime dramas about a criminal who tries to ascend in hierarchy and power, I’m Your Woman never really concerns itself with Eddie. What he does, where he is, and what is going on, may be questions on Jean’s mind but Cal nor anyone else offers any answers. For this docile woman more accustomed to the backseat, she finds herself having to make due with what she does have – her baby, mind, spirit, and willingness to fight – in order to make it through. No more will she allow things to just happen to her, instead taking the action necessary to force her will on the world. It is somewhat a subversion of the genre, a look at a woman who would be in the background of a film focused on the man. There would be some scene where he looks at his confidants, asks them to look after his wife and son, and heads into the battle. This is that wife and son, these are those confidants, and this is her struggle to survive while discovering the truth of a life she was blind to for years.
Stripped down and focused on tension and characters, I’m Your Woman may be a slow burn but the threat always posed to Jean keeps suspense at a constant high. Small details from a car sound in the distance to a door unexpectedly being open is enough to send the viewer to the edge of their seat. Hart keeps it fresh even beyond the new perspective on a classic story, shocking with certain beats and action. A club scene is chief among this, suddenly descending into chaos and bringing the violence that Eddie has unleashed on the city into focus for the audience and Jean. There is no moment to relax, as even a scene of tenderly putting Harry to bed carries with it the fear that men with guns could appear at the door at any moment. Hart allows the story to take its time, never rushing but one feels the shock and uncertainty of Jean from the moment she is whisked away in the middle of the night. As her head races and tries to make sense of everything, I’m Your Woman takes on that same feeling. Few puzzle pieces are available and what information is revealed comes in dribs and drabs, never allowing her or us a full picture of events. The film ramps up the mystery and tension, as who can be trusted and what could be coming next rarely becomes clear. Even an elderly neighbor at Jean’s safe house could be a threat. To survive, she must move through the shadows and with a gun in her jacket. Unseen forces can be waiting for her, and as in true noir spirit, the underworld of her city starts to come to life and reach for her, no matter where she may be hiding.
Rachel Brosnahan is terrific as Jean. She excels in bringing out her character’s state of mind to the forefront without over-the-top displays or exaggeration. Her shock on that first night, the look of hurt as she learns about Eddie’s true work and the growing dismay as she realizes what he has unleashed, all land with great force. Brosnahan’s expressive face is part of it with her eyes capturing the deep feelings within her, but it is often the resultant delivery that nails the feeling. The frantic, scattered thoughts and probing questions posed to Cal’s wife Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake) with a feeling of hesitation about them, so desperate to know the answers but scared that they may confirm what she thinks. Brosnahan has a great apt for capturing women thrust into a world they were blind to, as she has shown in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with I’m Your Woman having a distinctly different tone. Nonetheless, she captures many of the same qualities, from the care-free life to the considerable pain she must feel all at once while trying to rebuild and remain strong. Marsha Stephanie Blake also excels, possessing a worldly seen-it-all feeling, experienced in what Jean is going through and hardened through those events. She instills confidence and looks assured, but Blake captures a fragility and fear within her that makes her quite the dynamic character. It may be a story focused on Jean, but Teri makes just as much of an impact thanks to Blake.
Technically, I’m Your Woman delivers further. The costumes are a big part of its production success, from Jean’s stylish dresses and vintage berets to Cal’s sweater. It all exudes the 1970s vibe the film is after with great attention to detail in the design. When it comes to cinematography, Hart and DP Bryce Fortner focus on drawing a contrast. The cold, harsh world outside – once the action starts – often appears blue while interiors or her nightly walks occur with a goldish hue to them. Scenes of her taking charge, too, have a warmer look to them, even if she imperiled in the moment. One can feel the safety provided by her hideouts, as well as the despair of finding those places violated in her absence with a cold, muted look at her final visit to the isolated cabin. Hart and Fortner keep these color cues up throughout the film, from the warm and inviting purple hues of Jean’s tender diner scene with Cal to the cold blues and rain of her crying fit in a laundromat. They use these eye-catching contrasts to its advantage. Not only are they stylish and beautiful, but they instill a mood that effectively builds the film’s emotional arc.
A subversion of a classic crime drama setup, I’m Your Woman turns away from the husband who betrays his fellow underworld figures and instead focuses on the ramifications for his wife and child. Thrilling and pulse pounding at every turn, this may be a slow burn but the threat of being found and the bewilderment of what is going on keeps the suspense at a high throughout. Terrific costume design and cinematography add technical flair. The performances of Rachel Brosnahan and Marsha Stephanie Blake strike at the human cost of crime while bringing to life these two strong women who refuse to back down in the face of challenges. I’m Your Woman is a tense and exhilarating experience.