It’s handy for any television director striving to crossover to films to have Charlotte Rampling knocking around in the ‘happy to help as I’m your mother’ department. One of England’s most enduring talents is best when showing a sharpness that makes you fear for those nearby. Her maternal wedding speech in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia was almost as destructive as the subsequent apocalypse. Yet for most of Barnaby Southcombe’s feature debut, her character is pretty vacant which feels as odd as watching someone using a knife as a spoon.
Adapted from Elsa Lewin’s novel and transposed from New York to London, I, Anna is a melting pot of familiar noir themes. Take a dead body, a divorced cop, a mysterious dame and city lights glittering on the other side of grey days. String together using violent flashbacks, have the cop fall for the dame and dollop in a twist. The problem is that instead of melding together harmoniously, the ingredients sit side-by-side, like preassembly flat-pack furniture.
Anna (Rampling), a divorced, still glamorous older woman frequents single nights in joints classy enough to boast chandeliers. She goes home one night with a bruiser who winds up dead. DCI Bernie Reid (Byrne) a divorced cop sees Anna leaving the scene of the crime and falls hard to the detriment of his investigation. That’s pretty much it. The truth about the murder plays out alongside Anna and Bernie’s burgeoning relationship.
Considering their combined charisma, Byrne and Rampling’s chemistry should require safety goggles. But Rampling has been dumbed down with a lame character/poor script killer combination. The camera fetishes her elegance with lingering leg shots and reaches her face only to reveal a glazed smile. The twist partially redeems her dazed carryings on but cannot excuse lines so derivative you can guess how they end halfway through. Byrne is charming as the warm and worn Bernie. If only he’d caught Rampling in a more acerbic turn.
Visually is where I, Anna becomes most intriguing. Though obsessed with using cold London skylines as punctuation, cinematographer Ben Smithard resists the urge to film landmarks. The capital feels like just another anonymous city dominated by tower blocks, dank police headquarters and Anna’s unremarkable flat.
Key phone calls take place from an old red telephone box providing a jolt of nostalgia and disengaging from the contemporary milieu. Unhurried scenes outlast their content lending events a dreamlike tempo. Dreams can boast celebrities in humdrum roles so it’s fitting that floating around as underdeveloped support are Hayley Atwell as Anna’s daughter and Eddie Marsan as Bernie’s underling.
Southcombe’s adaptation of Lewin’s book cuts out brutal dramatic turns and their absence is felt. Last year’s Drive showed us what a slick creature the modern noir can be but while Rampling Jr clearly recognises key elements of this genre he lacks the storytelling nous to whip them into shape.
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