Con Heir: Julia Garner excels as the fake heiress who charmed the New York elite in ‘Inventing Anna’ – TV Review [Grade: A-]
In May 2018, New York Magazine published an article titled “How an Aspiring ‘It’ Girl Tricked New York’s Party People” – this feature by Jessica Pressler documents and dives into how a shrewd young woman, German heiress Anna Delvey, deceived people into thinking she came from money while manipulating banks in an attempt to receive massive loans to create her own elite social club based in New York City. The article features quotes from people who were close to Anna while she made plans to create the club, dubbed the Anna Delvey Foundation, or ADF, including Reff, a hotel concierge turned friend, and Rachel, a photo editor from Vanity Fair. The article is so engrossing, one might ask if it would be ripe source material for an adaptation.
For those asking this question, Netflix is answering it with a limited series inspired by Jessica Pressler’s article. Brought to Netflix by high-profile creator/writer Shonda Rhimes in conjunction with her production company, Shondaland, Inventing Anna dramatizes the article and the relationships of everyone involved. Laid across nine episodes, Inventing Anna is a story about class and the definition of the American dream. Anna Delvey is someone who reached for a dream, lying to everyone around her in her attempt of achieving this dream. Anna is someone who clearly sees wealth as a tool of power, something to be evoked in order to prove one’s superiority over another. She’s an interesting character and person, making it understood from the beginning of the season that she’s unapologetic about what she’s done.
In the titular role is two-time Emmy winner Julia Garner, who transforms into Anna Delvey under a red wig and behind designer glasses. Garner has received praise before for her accent work on Ozark, but she outdoes even herself in this role. Delvey has a European accent that mixes Russian and German while simultaneously attempting to sound American; Garner does magical work mastering this accent, proving to be unrecognizable to even the biggest fan of her previous projects – she’s a chameleon. Anna Chlumsky (Veep) is great as Vivian Kent, who serves as the fictional version of Jessica Pressler. Vivian works at Manhattan Magazine and needs a good story to revitalize her career. When she discovers Anna Delvey, she’s instantly drawn to her, seeking out knowledge about her and calling people she finds on Anna’s Instagram. Chlumsky delivers a fine performance as a journalist seeking redemption that develops an interesting, complicated, sometimes funny relationship with Anna.
Anna is already imprisoned at Riker’s Island when the series begins, introducing her when Vivian visits her for the first time. Anna makes it clear to Vivian immediately that money is no problem for her, something the audience will hear again and again over the course of the series. But is that the truth? Does she really have this money? What’s so compelling about the real story and this series is how sure of herself Anna always sounds. Her confidence in herself is seemingly enough to warrant it in her from others. It’s clear that this is how Anna made it so far in what she was doing, how she was able to convince everyone around her that she had an inheritance, including attorneys and bank executives – her confidence in what she was saying and how she was acting made people believe they were dealing with the real deal. The show’s juxtaposition of Anna’s confidence when she’s around people versus her fragility when she’s alone allows for a more three-dimensional look at Anna, even more so than the New York Magazine piece.
Over the first few episodes, the series unfurls the mystery behind how Anna started making her connections and relationships once she established herself in New York. She checks into an upscale hotel, slipping $100 to any staff member willing to help her with even the slightest issue. She befriends a concierge at the hotel, Reff, who seems to like the way Anna conducts herself (and is very clearly attracted to Anna for her money). Alexis Floyd (The Bold Type) makes Reff perhaps more interesting than she was in the New York Magazine piece, the writing of the character allowing Floyd to be more than Anna’s fast-talking best friend who believes her about everything. Reff is a person who wants to believe Anna, insisiting to everyone that Anna’s who she says she is, she just knows it. Even when Reff is forced to pay for an expensive dinner when all of Anna’s credit cards start declining, she still wants to believe Anna.
As the season goes on, the audience sees more and more of Anna being unable to pay for things: hotels, dinners, vacations. She gets a personal trainer, Kacy, that she pays in cash – however, where she gets this cash is largely unconfirmed. Laverne Cox is wonderful as Kacy, bringing a realistic portrayal of a woman who starts to doubt Anna, attempting to distance herself from it when she starts to figure out what’s going on. When Anna’s with Kacy, she’s usually also with Rachel, a writer for Vanity Fair (they work out together). Rachel, played by Shondaland veteran Katie Lowes (Scandal), is a naïve woman who believes Anna’s lies, wanting to believe that her friend is who she says she is. In one of the episodes, they all take a trip to Morocco and, as one might expect, Anna is unable to pay for anything there either. Rachel is forced to put down her personal credit card and her work credit card, resulting in chaos in her life when Anna starts dodging her calls instead of paying her back. It’s another way the series shows how Anna gets away with everything: she uses people. She allows other people the chance to pay for her when there are no other options, then completely abandons that person. But how does it get that far? How is Anna fooling everyone?
What’s similar between the show and the New York Magazine piece is their exploration of this question. They each present their audiences with enough information for people to truly see Anna Delvey for what she is: a conwoman, a scammer, a liar. Anna Delvey is a young woman who thought that she could simply lie her way into being given status and money based on nothing. The worst thing that the audience finds out, though, is that she came very close to achieving her goal. By lying about who she was, Anna was given more access than she should have ever seen. There’s an episode where she convinces an attorney that she has a fortune back in Germany with almost no evidence – and he signs off on it! The series is both fascinating and maddening in that way, as it’s unclear how these different executives and higher-ups just listened to the lies of a young woman and allowed her falsehoods to propel her social status and overall chances of receiving massive loans. The series does this well, establishing the lies of Anna Delvey while juxtaposing them with the fragility of a young woman who was ultimately alone. It humanizes Anna to know that she seemingly dreams of just being included, but the series makes sure to remind the audience that she’s a master manipulator. Her confidence quite literally brought true the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it”, as it is made clear that her unending confidence in what she was doing almost brought her wildest dreams to fruition.
What’s most fascinating about the series is comparing it to its source material. Every episode begins by reminding the viewer that the entire story is true, “except for the parts that are completely made up,” creating an assumption that some of the crazier parts of the story are dramatized for narrative effect. That would be an incorrect assumption. The New York Magazine piece includes the trip to Morocco and Anna not being able to pay for it, though it does give a different excuse as to how it came to be paid for, if it ever was. The craziest moment of the show that turned out to be real, at least according to the New York Magazine piece, is that there was a dinner where Anna and Reff got to hear snippets from Lil Wayne’s then-highly anticipated album, Tha Carter V. When the series states that some parts are made up, it can be assumed that the discussions between side characters and some discussions with Anna herself are fictionalized for dramatic effect. This gives the characters more of a lived-in feel to them, so they don’t solely exist around Anna.
Shonda Rhimes’s first limited series for Netflix is a win for both her and the streamer. The series boasts an outstanding lead performance from Julia Garner as well as good to great performances from the entire supporting cast. Despite long runtimes, all nine episodes go by quickly and each episode unfurls just enough of the mystery around the enigmatic Anna Delvey to keep the viewer intrigued. Rhimes has created another addictive television show that will satisfy not only fans of her previous work, but anyone seeking a compelling and well-acted limited series.
All nine episodes of Inventing Anna begin streaming on Netflix Friday, February 11.
Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Netflix