‘Allen v. Farrow’ Review: HBO’s Wrenching Documentary Deserves to Be Heard Now

Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering's exhaustive documentary should be the final nail in a long unclosed coffin, but it also looks beyond the case to a national issue.
Actress Mia Farrow and Woody Allen watch the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks battle on the court at Madison Square Garden in New York  Saturday, April 30, 1983. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Mia Farrow and Woody Allen in 1983
AP / Bill Kostroun

For approximately the last three years, Woody Allen has been known as an alleged child abuser first and a filmmaker second. His last feature to land American distribution was 2017’s “Wonder Wheel,” and even that release was hindered by the rise of the #MeToo movement. Since then, Allen has had to seek funding for new movies from foreign producers, he’s seen his two finished features kept out of the most respected film festivals, and though he’s still working and still profiting, the ostracized Oscar winner has been trying to repair his public image through his adopted son, Moses Farrow, with his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, and in his 2020 memoir, “Apropos of Nothing.”

Little, if anything, has made a difference. Allen’s reputation remains exactly where it belongs — in the trash heap — but in case the once-vindicated auteur thought he could spin, wait out, or once again dodge the charges leveled against him — in the court of public opinion, at least — here comes “Allen v. Farrow,” a four-part HBO documentary series from directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. The two filmmakers have already crafted a powerful trilogy exposing sexual abuse in various American institutions (“The Invisible War,” “The Hunting Ground,” and last year’s “On the Record”), and while their first docuseries is largely focused on one infamous act, its thorough evaluation is enlightening beyond what happened to this famous family.

For those in the dark or in need of a refresher, “Allen v. Farrow” chronicles the accusation of sexual abuse against Woody Allen involving Dylan Farrow, his daughter who was seven-year-old at the time of the alleged incident. The first episode of the docuseries primarily serves as prelude, walking us through how Allen and Mia Farrow met and began a decade-long relationship. She had seven kids when they started dating, and Allen, by his own admission, didn’t want anything to do with them. Then Mia adopted Dylan, and everything changed. In new interviews, Dylan remembers always being in her father’s “clutches” and how his singular attention for her felt like “hunting.” Dylan’s brothers, Ronan Farrow and Fletcher Previn, corroborate these memories, as do babysitters, friends, and more relatives. They also discuss witnessing Allen’s disturbing behavior with Dylan, much of it previously chronicled.

Before covering the reported sexual abuse in 1992, the documentary backtracks in Episode 2 to tackle how Allen became romantically involved with Farrow’s daughter, his future wife Soon-Yi, framing the relationship through the director’s alleged affair with high school student Christina Englehardt, which inspired the film “Manhattan.” (Each episode ends with statements from Allen, denying any abuse or relationships with underage women.)

Here, the directors bring in a handful of film critics and entertainment reporters to break down how Allen’s films were seen at the time, how they helped form such a personal attachment between the writer-director-star and his audience, and how onscreen patterns might indicate offscreen interests. (Notably, many of these writers are women, and all of them make for excellent expert sources.) Invoking the idea that artistic work reflects the inner desires of the artist is a risky argument. No one claims murder-mystery novelists are killers — artists can explore characters without becoming them. Still, the pattern in Allen’s work is irrefutable, and the series even looks into his old notes, abandoned scripts, and other archived musings to further examine his prurient interests.

The second episode ends with a detailed accounting of Dylan’s alleged assault and shows the oft-described but never before seen video that Mia Farrow says she recorded of the child in the aftermath. The third episode tracks the parallel court cases between Mia Farrow and Allen — the custody trial and criminal investigation — and the fourth examines the immediate and more recent aftermath from Allen’s continued success in Hollywood up through Dylan’s open letters and #MeToo’s impact. All in all, the pacing is efficient and the material focused; this isn’t a bloated docuseries, stretched over four hours for extra content on HBO Max, but a nicely structured piece of filmmaking. (The episodes screened for press had temporary voice over that only popped up in the last two episodes, plus more fine tuning left to be done in post-production, so things could change slightly.)

That being said, don’t tune in looking for a smoking gun. All the evidence anyone should need to form an opinion has already been presented, and while Dick and Ziering utilize new interviews with key, reclusive subjects like Dylan and Mia Farrow, old interviews conducted shortly after Allen’s alleged abuse, previously undisclosed documents from the case, as well as dozens of expert and eyewitness sit-downs, a confession isn’t coming. This is a reframing of known events, as told by those who lived it, save for the accused himself.

Allen did not respond to interview requests from the filmmakers. Neither did Soon-Yi, but their perspectives are shared in a few different ways. For Allen, there’s plenty of archival footage, whether it’s his televised interviews, press conferences, or other public events. He’s also in plenty of home video footage, but it’s how the filmmakers literally include his voice that’s most compelling. He can be heard on phone calls taped by Mia Farrow in the years surrounding the accusation, and he’s also heard reading excerpts his own 2020 memoir, thanks to the audiobook recording he provided upon release.

Allen’s absence from the documentary is nagging at first, but as you get into the third and fourth hours, it becomes unwelcome. If Allen has had it rough for the past three years, “Allen v. Farrow” reminds us that he still had it great for 25. A talk show clip at the start of Episode 4  features a mid-’90s Allen saying the court cases never really affected him; he got to keep making movies, keep working with anyone he wanted, and keep being honored at Hollywood’s most prestigious award shows, including the Oscars. For 25 years, he got to shape the headlines around these accusations, while issuing further denials in interviews, on talk shows, via press conferences, and in court, all of which earned an abundance of media attention.

“Allen v. Farrow” offers Dylan and Mia the microphone. They may not be saying anything unprecedented or surprising (horrifying yes, but not surprising), and that’s part of the point. The documentary is convincing for those who still need convincing, but it’s also looking forward while looking back. Why are we only listening to Dylan now? Why were we so eager to accept Allen’s story? What’s changed, and what hasn’t? To that end, Dick and Ziering use the final hour to examine how precedents set, cited, or popularized by the Allen v. Farrow cases have lasting ramifications for other families involved in child abuse cases. From Parental Alienation Syndrome to sexist criminal justice standards, the docuseries convincingly points out how this isn’t an isolated incident, but a pattern of abuse in America.

Perhaps more time could have been spent studying how the American judicial system perpetuates this cycle of abuse, but that “Allen v. Farrow” stirs up these issues at all is a testament to its astute perspective. Here’s a documentary about a writer-director who’s already been cast aside, showing both how he overcame it once and even more rigorously arguing why he, and others like him, can’t be allowed to do it again. In short, it works. After this documentary, no one should want to hear from Allen for a very, very long time.

Grade: B+

“Allen v. Farrow” premieres Sunday, February 21 at 9 p.m. ET.

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