There’s a mystery wrapped up in the title of I’m Your Woman, director Julia Hart’s slow-burning crime thriller: Whose woman are we talking about? The film opens and closes on images of Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) looking into the camera in very different circumstances, and the distance between the mood and tone of those two shots traces the play of the title’s possessive pronoun.

We first glimpse Jean reclining on a chaise lounge in her garden, seemingly at ease with her sunglasses and cigarettes. Visual shorthand establishes that she’s a housewife with no children, waiting for her husband, Eddie (Bill Heck), to come home from whatever shady business he does during the day. She may be free to relax and read magazines, but the aimlessness of her actions and the vacancy in her eyes make it clear that she is far from an independent person. When Eddie walks in the front door with a toddler, Jean’s life is upended.

With none-too-subtle symbolism, Jean struggles to cook eggs, throwing away the sticky mess every time she breaks the yolk. In a confession to a trusted friend, she reveals that previous hardships have led her to “burn up” the maternal instincts she now needs to care for the unexpected and unwanted child her husband has thrusted into her care–a task for which she feels supremely unready. And then things really go downhill.

Rachel Brosnahan has earned a stellar reputation with her Emmy-winning performance in the Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” where she plays a chatterbox Upper East Side housewife who blazes her way into the gritty stand-up comedy scene in ’50s-era New York City. A verbal marksman, her character slays beatnik audiences with rapid-fire word play and lewd asides that leave the room gasping. Alas, that meteoric Brosnahan is not the woman of I’m Your Woman, where her affect is dour and tentative, seeming to wince and wilt at every turn of events. Perhaps the actor was drawn to the chance to play against type, but it does generate some cognitive dissonance, like watching Eddie Van Halen fiddle with a harmonica.

The script by Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz initially foregoes comedy for a rather sombre character study of a kept woman on the edge. Fortunately, the languid pace begins to tighten up once Cal (Arinzé Kene) arrives. A sympathetic henchman, he spirits Jean and the child away following Eddie’s ominous disappearance. Bad guys are on the prowl and danger lurks in unexpected places as the fugitive trio hit the road with Motown tunes on A.M. radio. Cal manages to awaken some of Jean’s dormant maternal instincts, which injects some vitality into the storytelling. A Chekhovian gun and a nervy car chase shift the tone towards action-thriller territory, with a couple of narrative twists that strain credibility but serve to push Jean into a new emotional and psychological register.

The location shooting around Pittsburgh and rural Pennsylvania creates a vivid sense of place, a welcome antidote to the airless atmosphere of the first act. While Jean spends the majority of the film stripped of her agency, her awakening from self-imposed repression comes slowly, and then all at once. A budding friendship with Cal’s formidable wife, Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), suggests new directions and attitudes that might begin to define her experience. When Jean sings the child to sleep with a whispered rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” the mystery behind the film’s title begins to resolve. On the run but finally self-sufficient, she belongs to no one but herself.

There's a mystery wrapped up in the title of I'm Your Woman: Whose woman are we talking about?
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Woman on the run
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