Anna Kendrick’s Woman of the Hour premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2023. Here’s our review…
The premise of Woman of the Hour sounds like a set-up for a grim joke. Did you hear the one about the serial killer who appeared on a TV dating show? But it is, in fact, based on a true story. While there is some humor in the film, it’s no laughing matter overall. This is an acutely observed, well-judged, and original take on a popular genre. That it’s also a directorial debut is extremely impressive.
Anna Kendrick directs and also stars in the stranger-than-fiction story that splices together two narrative strands: the episode of the show that the killer, Rodney Alcala, appears on is the centrepiece, intercut with scenes of his despicable crimes. These moments are upsetting and unsettling but not overly graphic. The film opens on one such scene, frontloading the sense of danger.
For the acting side of the gig, Kendrick plays Sheryl Bradshaw, an aspiring actor whose ambitions have taken her to LA, where she’s fruitlessly bouncing from audition to audition, nearing the point of throwing in the towel. When her agent hooks her up with a TV appearance, a dating show isn’t exactly what she had in mind. But with few other prospects, and encouraged by the notion that some previous guests went on to bigger things after their moment in the spotlight, she gives it a go (in reality, future stars like Farah Fawcett and Steve Martin did appear, pre-fame).
The show is The Dating Game. For anyone not familiar with the format (it ran as Blind Date, a Saturday-night TV staple, in the UK), it sees a bachelorette on one side of a divider; on the other side, three bachelors await, looking to provide flirty responses to her questions in order to win an all-expenses-paid date. It all takes place in front of a live studio audience.
Large parts of this segment are fun, from the kitschy production design, to Tony Hale as the show’s slimy host (he’s no Cilla). And there’s a truly electric moment when Sheryl, fed up with the anodyne pre-planned questions, goes off script to really test the trio of potential suitors. It’s the kind of whip-smart comedic showcase that suits Kendrick to a tee.
But despite the flashes of fun, there’s an ever-present undercurrent of tension in the studio, from the ticking-clock countdown to the show starting, the glare of the studio lights, and the demands of live broadcasting. There are also smaller-scale toxic scenarios with men that Sheryl and the women of the film have to deal with - from the aforementioned host, who asks Sheryl not to play too smart on stage when she can just smile and laugh, to a pushy pal unable or unwilling to read signals. And beyond that, there are more sinister accusations that go unheeded.
As Rodney, Daniel Zovatto is an unnerving presence throughout. Clearly able to turn on the charm (hence the spot on one of The Dating Game’s three tall stools), he’s never too far from dropping the mask and revealing the predator underneath. With his long, lank, black hair, he’s like a young Vincent D’Onofrio crossed with Jack White. He verges on being the protagonist, given that he glides like a shark through all the story strands.
It’s best to go in with a limited amount of info about the real-life circumstances that inspired the film so that you can appreciate how it all plays out (save your Wikipedia-scouring for afterwards). Snappily edited, it zips along a brisk 94 mins. It doesn't need any longer to make its points, and leave a lasting impact.
Woman of the Hour's release date is currently TBC.