Rosemary’s Baby review: Night 1 & Night 2

Was NBC's updated Rosemary's Baby a failed experiment? Holly reviews the 2-part horror miniseries...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Night 1 & 1.2 Night 2

“The devil has many faces,” a frantic priest warns Rosemary Woodhouse shortly before meeting his end at the hands of a horned stranger with CGI blue eyes and a goat-headed cane. It’s a sequence that encapsulates the ham-fisted horror of director Agnieszka Holland’s two-part miniseries Rosemary’s Baby.

Though debatably unfair, comparisons to Roman Polanski’s classic 1969 film of the same name plague this gratuitous adaptation. Technically, this incarnation is based upon the book by Ira Levin rather than a remake of the original film, but with such a formidable precedent, it’s inevitable that Holland’s version is under the microscope.

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Zoe Saldana’s take on Rosemary is not without merit, initially bringing a sharp independence to the lead role. Up until now, in fact, Rosemary has been supporting her husband, Guy (Patrick J. Adams), as he struggles with writer’s block on the novel that will surely give him his big break. It’s an understandable reversal of roles, playing to Saldana’s easy elegance and poise, as well as to a more realistic picture of a contemporary couple.

Essential to Mia Farrow’s iconic performance, however, was her devastating naiveté. While Saldana pulls off a similar sweetness and devotion to her husband, it’s hard to fully buy in that such a capable woman could be easily duped by almost everyone she encounters, much less that she would inexplicably make the same mistakes that Farrow’s wide-eyed, vulnerable Rosemary does.

Inexplicable mistakes she does make, though, and how. The plot unfolds in roughly the same sequence of events as the first movie, but instead of gradual, uneasy disclosures, this Rosemary (as well as the viewing audience) has several revelations dropped upon her like so many hanging Coptic priests. Instead of becoming more shrewd, as one would expect from the courageous woman who chased down her mugger at the beginning of the story, she dissolves into hysterics with almost every realization–and promptly shares said realization with whoever’s around. Most of the time, it’s someone who quickly orchestrates her next trap, with the exception of Police Commissioner Fontaine (Olivier Rabourdin), who serves as an impotent sounding board for Rosemary’s research.

There’s a difference, too, in how we see Saldana’s Rosemary navigating the ever-more-sinister shifting of her reality. One of the most unsettling aspects of Farrow’s Rosemary’s claustrophobic unravelling was that it was almost completely from her childlike perspective. She is mostly isolated from her friends and has to make do with the pacifying condescension of her husband and his cohorts. From this view, we see the red flags that clue her in that something is not right and feel the growing of her concern until the unthinkable conclusion. 

Saldana, in contrast, seems to run into clunky exposition and “helpful” advice quite often. I can only conjecture that this was a deliberate choice to help spell things out for an audience whose attention span may not be as attuned to the subtleties of the Polanski original over four decades on. She has constant help along the way, which is frustrating, given that her character is by no means helpless when we first meet her.

There is a sense here of a missed opportunity. Why bother with an updated change of scenery if almost nothing else gets updated? Why not explore a stronger, more take-charge Rosemary, ultimately emphasizing even her powerlessness against the dark forces at play? Saldana, who is credited as one of the series’ producers, would certainly be up to the task.

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Still, it must be said that this version gets some things right. The moving of the setting from New York to Paris was a good choice–it adds to Rosemary’s disorientation, deflects at least a little comparison with the original movie, and provides some gorgeous scenery.

Indeed, this is a visually gratifying TV movie. Airy university buildings, posh apartments, the obligatory formidable Eiffel Tower in the background–the only shabby setting is the faculty housing the Woodhouses first move into, and it gets burned down soon enough anyway. Even the characters are ridiculously good-looking, from the youthful, glowing Woodhouses to the sensual Castevets.

These middle-aged Castevets, to say the least, are decidedly sexier than the meddling old couple from the 1969 version. Lavishing the Woodhouses with gifts–including an entire closet of couture–the icy Roman (Jason Isaacs) and the hot-blooded Margaux (Carole Bouquet) immediately begin to not-so-subtly take over and bring changes ostensibly for the better. The chain of coincidences leading to the couples’, shall we say, hookup is suspect. It makes sense for benevolent old next-door neighbors to want to take in a pair of newlyweds, but the Woodhouses register only a token reluctance before jumping at the offer of prime Parisian real estate from a mysterious couple they just met.

The aesthetics are nothing but improved, though, with the Castevet switch. Beyond that, it seems to serve mostly as a chance to inject some boundary-testing eye candy.

The use of color and light is legitimately impressive as well. Polanski’s basic tones are replaced by a lush palette of deep colours, especially red, which is used to an effective degree in the freakier scenes, such as Rosemary’s first encounter with something a bit…off at the Castevets’ party. Echoing the many instances of network-approved yet surprisingly potent gore, pops of sanguine frequently punctuate the more ominous moments–from the growly black cat with a red collar to the red bowl of Margaux’s “fertility soup” to the crimson-filtered demon baby conception–all culminating in the red-veiled bassinet of the last scene.

Rosemary’s worsening disorientation, too, is represented for the most part effectively with spinning camera shots and oddly-placed focus pulls. Some chiaroscuro, though borderline cliché, still works. It’s best employed with the always-lurking Roman Castevet as he is often cast in villainous darkness and stark silhouette. And practically every window in practically every scene has dramatic streams of light shining through.

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I guess if I’d never seen the original Rosemary’s Baby I would enjoy this version in the same way that I–maybe slightly guiltily, but still unapologetically–enjoy any good made-for-TV production. I’m also admittedly a sucker for a good Satan flick–I can’t seem to resist tales of pretty people and ancient texts and sinister soul-bargaining.

The problem here, though, is that Rosemary’s Baby isn’t, at heart, a “Satan story.” It’s Rosemary’s story, and the terror of it is what we see happening to her. We see way too much of Guy’s rapid, Faustian journey from good-natured starving artist husband to one-note power-hungry sociopath. It’s almost as much his story as hers, and it’s a distraction that undermines the terrifying claustrophobia we should be experiencing as Rosemary’s hellish nightmare is progressively revealed to be her inescapable reality.

By the time we reach the Hail Satans, it’s almost a relief to see Saldana put out of her misery as her Rosemary weakly accepts her fate as Satan’s baby mama. Farrow’s Rosemary, in the end, still had a shred of well-meaning innocence as she sang to her demon spawn. We leave Saldana strolling by the Seine, a Stepford-Wifean sneer in her empty eyes. (Speaking of eyes: “He has his father’s eyes” is one of the most haunting and legendary lines in horror movie history. We did not need to see them. Period.)

This miniseries, to someone not attached to the original movie, is a nice-looking, straightforward (read: heavy-handed) deal-with-the-devil story. It could have been worse. But it could have been–and HAS been–so undeniably better. 

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