‘I’m Your Woman’: Rachel Brosnahan Bursts the Suburban Bubble in ’70s-Style Crime Drama
Women are usually relegated to the sidelines when it comes to crime films, but director Julia Hart is one of the filmmakers changing this with her fourth feature, “I’m Your Woman.” Rachel Brosnahan stars as Jean, a sheltered ’70s housewife who finds herself on the run with her baby after her gangster husband, Eddie (Bill Heck), gets in trouble. Helping her through her ordeal are two of her husband’s associates, married couple Cal (Arinzé Kene) and Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake). Hart co-wrote the screenplay with her husband and creative partner, “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz, who also co-produced alongside Brosnahan.
The idea for “I’m Your Woman” came to Hart around the time she herself first became a mother, a period in which she found herself watching ’70s crime dramas like “The Godfather,” “The Getaway,” “The French Connection” and “The Conversation.” “There are so many amazing films,” Hart told Entertainment Voice, “but they mostly have male protagonists, and I found myself really drawn to the supporting female characters, because they were really interesting and were played by really amazing actresses, but I just always felt like one of them deserved their own movie, to tell the story from that time period and in that world from their perspective. So that was the beginning of the character of Jean and the story of ‘I’m Your Woman.’”
While “I’m Your Woman” is certainly a film that keeps the viewer guessing regarding Eddie, the focus of the film is not on Jean discovering the truth about him, although she does learn multiple shocking things. Instead, the focus is on her journey, on her learning how to make decisions for herself and take charge when needed. She is helped first by Cal, who takes her to several safehouses. He is only able to give her information on a need-to-know basis, which frustrates Jean, until she realizes that he is in the same boat. The tension is offset by some bonding moments between Jean and Cal, and later, Jean and Teri, Cal’s wife who takes over looking out for Jean and her baby while Cal is forced to attend to other business.
Blake, who previously received an Emmy nomination for her performance in the Netflix’s “When They See Us,” plays the perfect foil to the relatively innocent Jean, as Teri has already seen the worst the underworld has to offer. The two women have a great chemistry, having previously worked together on a stage production of “Othello.” Blake revealed that she found something Shakespearean about their scenes together in “I’m Your Woman.” “I got to know her as Rachel and as Desdemona. I saw someone who was completely committed to her work, committed to art, to the creation of art. Just a lovely person inside and out… We got to be Jean and Teri together in these small, intimate scenes, not totally unlike Desdemona and Emilia.”
One of the lighter scenes that stands out involves Jean sitting with Cal in a diner and treating him to an impromptu rendition of her favorite song that she sings to her baby, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin. Kene recalled filming that scene, which came after numerous long, exhausting shoot days. “I remember, myself, I had an expectation coming into that scene. And I realized that that expectation wasn’t going to be met, but then, something better came along, and that scene ended up being quite magical. I was a bit nervous about that scene… But I remember when I saw it, I felt like, ‘Oh, man, that’s a special scene right there.’ I loved that one.”
Although we don’t get a lot of backstory on Jean, we assume that much of her life up until this point has been spent in the white suburban bubble we see her in at the beginning. Hart puts her in a situation where that bubble is burst, and she not only becomes aware of her struggles as a woman, but also, through her relationship with Cal and Teri, her white privilege. The perspective of two Black characters adds to the richness of this story about “others.”
Hart explained why Intersectionality was so important. “Kimberlé Crenshaw hadn’t coined that term in the seventies, but so many people were experiencing what she later wrote about. Her writing was something I really took to heart when I was writing the script, Jean’s awakening and understanding of what it means to be a white woman in America in the 1970s, and seeing Cal’s experience as a Black man, and then the very different experience of Teri as a black woman, and just understanding the different levels of struggle and privilege in their different lives… In shifting the perspective, I felt it was important to explore that aspect of that world as well.”
Motherhood is also a major theme in “I’m Your Woman.” Not only does Jean have her baby boy, Harry, but Teri also has a child, her son, Paul (De’Mauri Parks). According to Hart, it was really important to include children in order to raise the stakes for these women, who have to protect their kids in addition to themselves. “I’m very interested, as a mother myself, in exploring the very different experiences mothers have in motherhood. There is no monolith. Every mother I know has had a different experience, and there are also ways in which we can share and connect. I just really liked the idea of exploring this world through not only a woman’s eyes, but a mother’s eyes, as well.”
While there are guns and plenty of action in “I’m Your Woman,” Hart made a point of avoiding gratuitous violence. In one memorable scene, Cal is put in a situation in which he is forced to use his gun. Afterwards, he and Jean deal with the emotional fallout, something that one usually doesn’t see in crime dramas, and it is refreshing.
“I’ve had guns in a couple of my films, and I’m really interested in exploring them, because they’re such a huge part of our culture and our world, and also, our cinema history,” explained Hart. “Who fired a gun, how often they fired a gun, who they fired a gun at, it was something I wanted to be incredibly intentional about… I think we’ve become so desensitized. I think, in some ways, the most powerful way to remind us how these are deadly weapons is to have only one bullet to be fired, just to remind us as a culture of the power of even one bullet, and to not become desensitized to that.”
An emotional high point of the film comes when Jean meets Cal at a diner in the final act. At this point, Cal has been wounded and Teri is missing, but he must stay calm, despite his pain and his not knowing if his wife is dead or alive. “I was really engaging with the fear within me,” said Kene when asked about this scene. “I also used the memory, an actual memory I have of someone close to me, when they went out to work and didn’t come back home. It’s just inviting some of those emotions and fears. You want to see that person, you need to, either to tell them, ‘I’ll be okay’ or ‘goodbye,’ because, at this point, we’re not sure how injured Cal is. In addition to that, she’s in danger too. I had to play all of that.”
In true retro crime drama fashion, “I’m Your Woman” culminates in a car chase, one that ends with Jean’s biggest challenge yet. “It was so intense,” said Hart with a laugh when asked about filming this action sequence, which was not only difficult because of its logistics. “Part of what made it so intense was that it was always important to us to stay in the emotional experience of the characters, so everything was very emotionally raw. It wasn’t just physically challenging to shoot. It was also very emotionally draining and we were all in it together.”
Blake opened up about filming the harrowing aftermath of the chase. “It weirdly felt so real. Whenever we would see that bruise that was on Cal’s face, Rachel and I could not look at it. Our special effects people did such a wonderful job, almost too wonderful. It was hard to look at him. That whole scene happened on a very cold day. I remember the feeling of absolute dread, which is right very Teri, and right for Jean, but it felt so real to us. It was very emotional, that scene, in so many ways.”
What is also striking about “I’m Your Woman” is how timely it feels, as Jean, at least in the beginning, finds herself being ordered to stay indoors. If she ventures out or lets anyone in, she not only puts herself in danger, but also those with whom she comes in contact. Hart reflected on the timeliness of her film. “It is so funny, because we shot it in 2019, but I think there’s a lot about the film that feels even more relevant and resonate in 2020 after we’ve all been so disconnected and there’s so much uncertainty, and so much danger out in the world, and we have to stay safe and stay home, but, ultimately, I think it’s a hopeful film about us coming back together as a community and taking care of each other, and how important that is.”
“I’m Your Woman” releases Dec. 4 in select cities and begins streaming Dec. 11 on Amazon Prime Video.