A highly stylized psychological thriller set in a grimly bleak London, I, Anna follows the intersecting lives of an aging woman trying to pick up the threads after a painful divorce and an impossibly sensitive police commissioner tracking a murder case. Loneliness and alienation are the main themes scratched out by penetrating performances from reliable leads Charlotte Rampling and Gabriel Byrne, in a narratively thin yet ultimately accomplished first feature directed by Rampling's son Barnaby Southcombe. Though the storyline totters between police genre and European art film, the latter predominates and the film will probably find itself caught in limbo between festivals and scattered theatrical.
Highlighting the film noir elements in Elsa Lewin's 1984 American novel, Southcombe's screenplay transposes the action to gray high-rises on the edge of a somber cityscape. Rampling's Anna lives with her daughter Emmy (Hayley Atwell), helping the young mother care for her toddler. The men in their lives are somewhere off-screen, on the other end of the telephone, cut off but still lurking painfully in the background. As Anna confesses to a straight-talking lady (Honor Blackman in a punchy cameo) she meets at a speed dating session, the separation from her husband was mutual, but now she regrets it.
This is the evening Anna meets George Stone (Ralph Brown), a sex-oriented dater who lives with his troubled teenage step-son. The boy, played with memorable panic by Max Deacon, is wildly out of control and in debt to some pushers. Back at George's apartment, an ugly tussle ends with a dead man on the floor. George has been bludgeoned to death, but Anna, the witness, has no memory of what happened that night.
Enter chief detective Bernie Kominski (Byrne), a red-eyed, unshaven insomniac recently separated from his wife. He arrives at the crime scene early in the morning to find the elegant, mysterious Anna innocently retrieving an umbrella she left in the elevator. He makes a mental note of her licence plate, not because she's a prime suspect in the case, but because he wants to see her again.
The threads are pretty neatly interwoven, leaving the story in the hands of the actors. Even though the unforgiving camera does nothing to disguise her age, Rampling slips into the role of grandmother femme fatale with convincing aplomb, aided by abnormally intelligent dialogue that would almost have been at home in a Hollywood film of the 1940s. Her class, wit and breath-taking figure in an evening dress befuddle the smitten detective to the point of compromising the investigation.
As Anna's memories of the night of the murder resurface, the story dives off into deep psychological waters. By telling the story from the perspective of the suspect, the film undercuts a number of genre conventions. On the one hand, this enriches the character whose psychological fragility will elicit sympathy, especially from female audiences, even before the great tragedy in her past is revealed. The downside is a lot of scenes of Anna wandering the streets dreamily with a baby stroller, or placing emotional calls from every phone booth in town (what, no cell phone?), adding up to lots of stagnant screen time that cuts into the action and slows the film down.
Even unslept, Byrne is seriously attractive as the mumbling, heart-sore detective Bernie, as becomes obvious the minute he walks in the door at the speed dating den and the female organizer starts to swoon. His link with Anna is the unhappiness in his personal life, and the love story between the two mature protags feels convincing and possible, allowing a tough final scene to offer the necessary emotional closure the story demands.
Production designer Tom Burton's strong signature look of cold modernity is sometimes a bit overwhelming. The police chief's elegantly appointed glass office, for example, is hard to connect with Bernie as we know him. The music by K.I.D. is also prone to make unsettling modern statements, all tending to distance the story and characters.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special), Feb. 11, 2012.
Production company: Embargo Film, Riva Filmproduction, Arsam International
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Gabriel Byrne, Hayley Atwell, Eddie Marsan, Jodhi May, Ralph Brown, Max Deacon, Honor Blackman
Director: Barnaby Southcombe
Screenwriter: Barnaby Southcombe based on a novel by Elsa Lewin
Producers: Felix Vossen, Christopher Simon, Michael Eckelt, Ilann Girard
Director of photography: Ben Smithard
Production designer: Tom Burton
Costumes: Pam Downe
Editor: Peter Boyle
Sales Agent: Global Screen
No rating, 93 minutes.