Please note: there are many spoilers for this film in the following essay. If you have not seen I, Anna, then perhaps you should wait until you have seen it before reading further. If, on the the other hand, you are not very interested in seeing this film, you might want to read further. It is a film deserving of your attention.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the film I, Anna.
I can certainly understand not enjoying or relating to a film based on a book one cherishes. Some of my friends are telling me they loved the book upon which the film I, Anna is based and they question the choices the writer/director of the film, Barnaby Southcombe, has made. I am having that experience at the moment with Game of Thrones.
I am a big fan of the books and George R. R. Martin’s story-telling prowess. Every time they make a change or leave a character out or rearrange the timeline or whatever they (the writers and directors of the TV series) decide to do, I am disappointed. Some of my favorite characters are not in the TV series and many pivotal and wonderful scenes are cut. My “book” heart is broken.
What the Game of Thrones creative spirits do manage to achieve, given the constraints of ten hours of screen time per book, is wonderful. Intentions are true, key characters are well-done, and the sets and action are often even better than I imagined them. But it is very different. A different story, in some ways, about these people and events.
I am glad I was able to come to the film I, Anna with a “tabula rasa.” I had not read the book and I had no expectations beyond the usual ones when you see a cast that includes Charlotte Rampling and Gabriel Byrne. I expected some darn good acting. But I had little idea of the plot or characters, except for the press about the film: a “neo-noir murder mystery.” Sounds intriguing! I was completely surprised by the film itself. What I saw, almost from the very first frame, was a complex and intricate story about two people who are lost.
I immediately knew what this film was: it was not a mystery, not a neo-noir, not a suspense/thriller. It was, from the first, a character study. Or rather, a characters study–a study of Anna and Bernie.
Both Barnaby Southcombe and Charlotte Rampling observe in the DVD commentary that the film was about two people who were “stuck in time and can’t move on.” I truly got that idea on my first viewing. That idea is there on the screen and in the performances, so my saying it is a story about “two lost souls” is really my reaction. They just agree with me. Or I agree with them.
A characters study must exist within a particular time and place, however, and that time and place for I, Anna is a present day brutalist world, with the Barbican in London as its real setting. Hence some of the “noir,” for this architectural labyrinth of tall cold buildings is the essence of the old-style “noir” environment–alienating, unwelcoming, and brutal. As an emblem for the society which Anna and Bernie must navigate, life could not be more disaffecting or disconnected.
The people in this characters study must have lives: Anna works in a department store, Bernie is a policeman. What initially connects them is a violent death, but in some ways, this is unimportant. Anna is closed off from the world but haunted by memories. Bernie is also closed off, dealing with a divorce and possibly questioning his work as a detective chief inspector. Both are vulnerable and hurting. Once they cross paths, the possibility for some kind of understanding and redemption is suddenly presented. A tenuous, fluttering possibility, but they both see it. It looks like desire to the outside world. But something else is going on between them.
In the DVD commentary, Barnaby Southcombe notes that Gabriel Byrne was confronting him almost from the beginning about the end of the story. In the original script, Anna jumps. In the book, something equally terrible happens to her. It sounds as though Byrne was in Southcombe’s face: is there no possibility for redemption for this woman? And, though he apparently did not say this, I think it is implied: and for this man? I really appreciate this, of course, and it made me reflect on how I reacted to the ending–such a splendid relief, that Bernie was there for her and that she allowed him to help her and be part of her “world.” I did not think it was a “romantic” ending. It was simply very spiritually-satisfying. I also thought the way Anna broke down at the very end and the way Bernie comforted her and sheltered her was incredibly moving and touching…without being sentimental. I was actually in tears at the end. I was so certain Anna would find a way to end her misery, never realizing that someone could reach across the chasm of separateness and be willing to find her. To recognize her pain and be willing to share it. So rare. So extraordinary, when you think about it.
Getting to that ending was a remarkable roller-coaster ride for me. I loved how Rampling became distant and somewhat confused in several scenes; that tough femme-fatale exterior was a shell and the woman inside it was destroyed. As her memories came back, she got worse. And Bernie was there to see the process through. He seemed to know who and what he was dealing with intuitively (the “lost” recognizing the “lost” perhaps) and he persevered. The dogged policeman. I like that. But he was also hesitant and gentle, tentative and vulnerable. And I like that too.
Of course Gabriel Byrne can do roles like this standing on his head but, as Rampling says in the commentary: “It’s fantastic when the director can get his casting. It’s sort of immediate believability in a character…they are there inhabiting their characters. I felt that with both him (Byrne) and me–it’s already there.”
So for me, the movie was intriguing and riveting–as a characters study and also as a mystery. The mystery had nothing to do with the violent death and its perpetrator. The mystery had everything to do with Anna and who she was and what had happened to her. I knew she was imagining people in her life; what could have happened to her to cause this denial and subsequent fantasy? I was glued to the screen from the very beginning.
Mira Nair, director of such films as “Monsoon Wedding,” “Vanity Fair,” and “The Namesake”, said in a talk at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival that “ADHD is the plague of our time.” Now I do not know if she meant this in terms of the reality of dealing with this condition or if she was referring to this metaphorically–in terms of an audience’s ability to pay attention to an extended narrative with all of its nuances and meaning. However, if the latter, then a film such as I, Anna will be lost on those who cannot pay attention, for there are indications, hints, and directions regarding the true nature of this narrative. There is as much of Hitchcock as there is ‘noir” in this film. And rightly so. For Hitchcock was interested in redemption far more than most “noir” films. “Paying attention” is what real movies are about. This one rewards it.
I loved everything about the film: the production, which landed us in the midst of these landscapes so antithetical to life; the music, especially the Richard Hawley ballads that broke my heart (“Cry a Tear for the Man on the Moon” is now on my playlist and I am scooping up all of his music as fast as I can–what a talent and perfect for this film); the camera work, including the mirror scenes and the tunnel scenes–so evocative of “noir” and its grounding in darkness and duplicity.
I found the performances powerful and truthful. Of course, both Charlotte Rampling and Gabriel Byrne could bring these characters to life. But they brought them to life in a way I did not expect. I considered being delicate about this but I’ve decided to be just as brutal as the brutal world these characters are living in. And that brutal world is one that adores youth. Neither of these actors spurned the hard light of the camera nor did they tiptoe about regarding their respective ages. I found this remarkable and also heartening. It was as though they were saying: Look, if you are going to live to be ninety, you can’t give up on life and love and being in the world just because you are sixty! And forget the plastic surgery nonsense: our faces and our bodies are our lives. Learn to look at them and revel in them–because experience is just as important as youth and naivete when it comes to falling in love. Those things are attractive, yes, but what you know and what you have learned by living mean more. Granted, great bone structure and beautiful eyes go a long way to making us forget this issue of age, but I was struck by the honesty of their performances and their willingness to be in the hard glare of the “noir” light.
And I loved this particular story. I watched the film twice (on DVD) to catch some of the nuances, and the commentary was enlightening, as you would expect (they were not happy about having to shoot in two locations BUT they were so happy for the support from Germany!) and it was lovely to hear both Barnaby Southcombe and Charlotte Rampling say such nice things about Gabriel Byrne. But most of all, the commentary provided me with a real understanding of why Barnaby Southcombe was drawn to the story and why he wanted to make the film with his mother in the lead role. And that was very cool.
So many films and books these days are about either “power” or “connection.” We feel powerless. We strive for power. We feel disconnected. We search for ways to be connected. I was struck by the humanity in I, Anna. Bernie standing on the balcony saying to Anna: “It doesn’t have to be this way.” And saying to her, by his presence, that she could be connected. That she was not alone. That he was willing to be hers. And she turned to him and was taken by him into his arms. Not to be saved. Not to be protected. But to accept the truth. And in that act, they could both be redeemed–from a past of tragedy, on her part, and isolation and failure on his. Such acts, as vulnerable and battered as we may be, are holy. I felt that, watching. What a gift.