While there’s no immediately good reason to remake Rosemary’s Baby today, it’s not an inherently terrible idea. Reproductive rights remain a pressing concern in our culture, and a woman’s power to choose what she does with her body has come under substantial fire in the past decade. Ira Levin’s original novel (first published in 1967) has tremendous sympathy for its female protagonist, a heroine who makes the mistake of trusting other people to have her best interests at heart. Roman Polanski’s classic 1968 film adaptation, intensely faithful to Levin’s writing, keeps this theme throughout, as Mia Farrow’s appealingly winsome presence makes her vulnerability all the more apparent. While there was little left on the page that hadn’t already been brought to the screen, the ideas themselves continue to resonate. And it’s not as though Satan has lost any marketshare.
A pity, then, that NBC’s two-part miniseries version of Rosemary’s Baby is such a slog. From the beginning, the new adaptation does what it can to distance itself from the old. The setting has been moved to Paris, and instead of picking up with Rosemary Woodhouse (Zoe Saldana) and her husband Guy (Patrick J. Adams) as they find the apartment of their dreams, the miniseries begins long before the story really kicks into gear. First, there’s a cold open with a young woman throwing herself off the balcony of a fancy Parisian apartment; and then, it’s a four-months-pregnant Rosemary getting the horrible news that her baby is stillborn.
As beginnings go, there’s not a lot of happiness to go around, which immediately sets up one of the miniseries’ main flaws: It has almost no sense of humor. While Levin’s novel was never an outright comedy, the author had the wit to realize the absurdity of his premise, and to use that absurdity to good effect. The prospect of a pair of Satanists living next door, all tacky and nosy and interfering, was so ridiculous that it was easy to dismiss, right up until the point when it became impossible to ignore. And by then, it was too late. Evil in both the novel and Polanski’s film was shabby, tasteless, and easy to mock. That’s what gave it its power.
Contrast that with Jason Isaacs and Carole Bouquet as the imposing Roman and Margaux Castavet, the rich couple who take Rosemary and Guy into their home and into their lives. The dance of seduction that tempts Guy to turn his wife into a breeding mare for the Devil remains intact, but now Roman and Margaux are so attractive, wealthy, and confident that there’s no black comedy to the situation, no reversal of expectation. It turns into the most blandly literal form of corruption imaginable. In theory, this could be another example of this version attempting to find its own voice, but without the creepy tension between what is seen and what is suspected, the story falls flat. There’s no subtlety or growing menace. Just a lot of obvious things, happening slowly.
There’s another problem: Three hours (which will air as four with commercials) is just too long to support a story this relatively straightforward. The miniseries tries to get around this by throwing in a superfluous subplot or two, and any number of scenes that fail to either move the story forward or develop characters. Far too many sequences exist simply for the sake of existing, with no real value or weight to them. The longer things go on, the harder it is for any suspense to build, and once it becomes evident that no one behind the camera had any clear idea of how to structure a narrative that wasn’t ripped off from countless other stories like it (large swaths play like deleted scenes from 666 Park Avenue), there’s little reason to keep watching except to wait for the inevitable pay-off.
By relaxing the focus on Rosemary and allowing multiple scenes to take place without her present, the miniseries sacrifices the claustrophobia and intense empathy which made the original versions so potent. If there was anything to replace that loss, it wouldn’t be an issue, but none of the new material ever coheres into anything more than placeholder scenes, exchanges which tease at depth and history without ever following through.
As for the performances, Isaacs finds wit, menace, and even something like melancholy in a role that barely exists on the page. Bouquet manages to suggest a sort of knowing detachment, and the Castavets relationship is easily the most compelling one in the miniseries. As the hapless Guy, Adams is a nonentity, fading from memory whenever he’s off the screen. Saldana’s Rosemary is stronger, but she’s ill-served by the script. The actress’s charismatic presence is undone by a character who is independent, passive, paranoid, and naïve by turns, without any consistent through-line to explain her behavior beyond a need to sustain the plot. The fact that she suffers a miscarriage at the start of the story is clearly intended to contextualize her intense need to protect her new pregnancy, but that’s not necessary. It might’ve been more helpful to spend the added scenes finding a way to justify Rosemary’s bizarre ability to be utterly terrified one minute, and completely trusting and happy the next.
It’s doubtful any performance, no matter how well-judged, could save this. The new Rosemary’s Baby is, at best, a glossy, flat reminder that there are better versions of this story readily available. At worst, it’s just flat.
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Starring: Zoe Saldana, Patrick J. Adams, Jason Isaacs, Carole Bouquet
Debuts: Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern on NBC
Format: Two-part miniseries