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‘Allen v. Farrow’ puts Woody’s daughter at the center of her own story

From left: Ronan Farrow, Mia Farrow, and Dylan Farrow in the HBO documentary series "Allen v. Farrow."Courtesy of HBO

You may not have the stomach for yet another dive into the alleged sins of Woody Allen, who faced accusations of sexually assaulting his and Mia Farrow’s adoptive 7-year-old daughter, Dylan Farrow, in 1992.

Much of what we see in HBO’s new docu-series “Allen v. Farrow” has already been chewed over — first after Dylan’s initial allegations resulted in investigations and a custody battle in the early 1990s, and more recently, and with more clarity, after statements in 2014 by Dylan and her brother Ronan Farrow and during the first wave of #MeToo. The charges against Allen never stuck in the courtroom, but they increasingly hound him as we become more aware of re-victimizing victims, and as Allen’s career suffers (in America; his 2019 movie “A Rainy Day in New York” grossed more than $22 million, mostly overseas).


I started the four-part series, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., about as eager to watch it as I am to take in more of Kellyanne and George Conway’s tabloid family drama, which is to say not at all. I haven’t got time for the pain — of watching other families’ psychodramas, of watching more true-crime tabloid headlines ride across the screen, and of watching the details of a case that will never be solved.

But I’m really glad I saw it. It lets Dylan, now 35, married and a mother, finally tell her own story at length. And it starkly reminds us of the serious strains of denial and hypocrisy in our culture regarding sexual abuse and incest, especially in the period before #MeToo. For reasons that go back a long way in our patriarchal and fame-worshiping culture, the series makes clear, many people have been just too happy to accept Allen’s demonizing of Mia Farrow as a scorned woman jealous of daughter Soon-Yi, whom Allen married, and using her daughter Dylan for vengeance.


“Allen v. Farrow” is often most compelling when it focuses on the specificities of the testimony it has elicited — something HBO’s Michael Jackson documentary “Leaving Neverland” also did with chilling results. We see Mia and others describing Allen’s early fixation on Dylan (which led him into therapy in 1991), coupled with home movies of him holding and touching her at Mia’s Connecticut home. These and other similar segments — including a vignette about Allen teaching little Dylan to suck his thumb — don’t prove anything legally, just as depictions of Jackson’s behavior didn’t in “Leaving Neverland,” but filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick are wise in embracing that subjectivity nonetheless. Subjectivity can be a powerful tool, especially when effectively matched up with imagery and facts from the time under discussion. Since “Allen v. Farrow” is about Dylan’s journey, more he-said-she-said might be pointless noise. In a way, it’s a more intensive series without Allen, Soon-Yi, and Dylan’s brother and Allen supporter Moses, all of whom declined to talk.

Woody Allen at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016.Thibault Camus/AP/file

In another potent and personal scene that comes late in the series, we see the adult Dylan shivering uncontrollably as she and her husband talk about the alleged abuse and its impact on their relationship. It’s only one of many emotional moments, as she looks back at the clouds that have darkened her life since the early 1990s. But it’s particularly poignant. Say all you want about theatrics; the scene is hard to shake.


“Allen v. Farrow” also has the distinction of introducing revealing new tapes, both video and audio, to the public. For the first time, we see the much-discussed footage that Mia took of Dylan in the days after the alleged abuse. It’s excruciating to watch the little girl describe Allen touching her “privates” and promising he’d take her to Paris if she’d let him do it. Was she coached, as Allen has claimed, as part of Mia’s revenge plan? We can’t say, of course, but the series makes it clear that some specialists found little Dylan believable and that those specialists who said she was not credible made a number of critical procedural errors while making that determination. Also, Frank Maco, the Connecticut state prosecutor at the time of the allegations, recalls that he did indeed find probable cause for bringing a criminal case against Allen, but didn’t go forward out of concern for the well-being of Dylan.

We hear for the first time a few recorded phone conversations between Allen and Mia regarding the court cases, and they are unsettling. Allen is as cool and distant as his movie persona is neurotic and fearful, while Mia begs him to explain what really happened on the day in question. It sounds as if he’s trying to torture her with his extreme dispassion.

“Allen v. Farrow” is flawed, mostly when it brings in unnecessary commentary. The segments featuring critics talking about Allen’s professional obsession with young women in sexual relationships with older men raise more questions than they answer. (By the way, I’m seen, briefly, talking about art and its relationship to the artist in a clip from GBH’s “Greater Boston.”) I think an entire docu-series about what to do when a great artist is a bad person might be a better spot for those perceptions. And why is Farrow neighbor Carly Simon a talking head here? The sudden deployment of star power — while pointing out how Allen’s star power tainted investigators, the media, and the public — does not help. But these are cavils about what is a compassionate portrait of a woman, once a girl, who we only thought we knew.



On: HBO. Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.