I, Anna

Director: Barnaby Southcombe
Writer: Barnaby Southcombe, Elsa Lewin (novel)
Year: 2012
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Gabriel Byrne, Eddie Marsan

★★★★☆

Screening in both Edinburgh and Glasgow as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, I, Anna is a neo-noir thriller with a psychological twist. Charlotte Rampling stars as the title character, a mature femme fatale who is suffering from amnesia and dissociation due to a traumatic experience that takes place at the end of a singles night.

The film is directed by Rampling’s son, Barnaby Southcombe, who presents the story from Anna’s perspective and places the emphasis on her precarious state of mind. Reading the novel by Elsa Lewin, a psychoanalyst based in New York, he immediately identified the title character with his mother, even though the ‘story was not her own’. It is evidently a personal film, and this becomes increasingly obvious as the narrative develops and we realise that behind the mystery there is something far more significant at stake.

I, Anna Gabriel Byrne and Charlotte Rampling

The adaptation moves the action from eighties New York to present day London, emphasising Southcombe’s varied European influences. The director makes excellent use of his surroundings as the capital is transformed into a brooding concrete menace, centred around the brutalist towers of the Barbican complex. The environment is oppressive and has a looming, crushing sterility, which seems to serve as a warning to those hoping to find anything genuine in the warm, bubbly atmosphere of the singles bars.

However, there is an unlikely romance at the core of I, Anna. It begins inauspiciously, as Rampling’s character meets DCI Bernie Reid (Gabriel Byrne) at the scene of a murder and leaves with a discarded umbrella that clearly does not belong to her. With his own demons to battle, Bernie is no less unhinged than Anna and quickly develops an obsession with this elusive woman, who lives in a small one-bedroomed flat with her daughter and granddaughter. The camera is drawn to Rampling’s figure; it is often framed or shown in close-ups, sliding down her legs, demonstrating that older women too can be dangerously seductive.

The retro elements and heavily stylised look of the film work well, giving it an unreal quality that seems to reflect many of the characters’ states of mind. Anna is frequently found in phone boxes, no doubt a nod to the noir of the past, but it also serves to intensify the mystery and has a genuine narrative purpose. As an aesthetic device it is effective, particularly during the scene in which Anna and Bernie first meet, and, like all of I, Anna‘s initially improbable elements, it makes perfect sense by the end.

The soundtrack also pleasantly surprises, comprising a bleak, atmospheric score by French electronic duo K.I.D., interspersed with acoustic tracks by indie crooner Richard Hawley. Southcombe originally had something very different in mind, a lyrical piano score, but it did not work, and it is difficult to see how it could. The dark electronica seems to bleed from the dense concrete and Hawley’s voice is superbly aligned with those of the central characters.

There is a smart twist at the end which strips away the foundations of what has been constructed, but rather than complicating matters, it sheds light on much that had remained in doubt. It is, in fact, crucial to the success of the narrative, taking attention away from the comparatively weak murder mystery, which has been designed to facilitate the intriguing character study rather than the other way around.

I, Anna Charlotte Rampling

The performances of the leads are key to the film and they are able to carry it through the early stages when the narrative seems convoluted and the cast a few characters too big. Rampling and Byrne have excellent chemistry and we really feel for their haunted characters, particularly as the film reaches its climax. They are perfectly cast and equally comfortable in such uncomfortable roles.

I, Anna is worth persevering with as it quickly develops into a coherent drama that gives renewed purpose to its underwhelming beginnings. There are plenty of tense moments and a couple of shocking scenes, but what stands out is the delicate handling of the relationship at the heart of the story and, particularly in the midst of such a harsh landscape, the almost unbearable fragility of the mind.

Rob Dickie

Review originally published at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival

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Fred Won’t Move Out

Director: Richard Ledes
Writer: Richard Ledes
Year: 2012
Cast: Elliott Gould, Fred Melamed, Stephanie Roth Haberle

★★☆☆☆

Fred, the latest film by writer-director Richard Ledes, offers an unassuming snapshot of a multigenerational family coping with the effects of Alzheimer’s. It is a small film in every sense, never stretched remotely beyond its subject matter by a filmmaker who seems more comfortable producing an objective, sensitive drama than anything which would require greater scope.

Elliott Gould, who plays the eponymous character, is the film’s biggest draw, but, while Fred craves to be the centre of attention, he does not have as dominant a role as you might expect. He lives with his wife, Susan (Judith Roberts), in their modest home in upstate New York, a long way from the big city and, significantly, from their family. Both are ill, but Susan’s condition is far worse; she suffers physically as well as mentally and requires around-the-clock assistance from a live-in nurse (Mfoniso Udofia). This creates tension and an element of resentment in Fred – he seems to dislike the attention his wife receives and does not believe such a high level of care is necessary.

Fred Elliott Gould

Gould is a fine comic actor, but it is difficult to gauge his tone here. With some interesting mannerisms and ready quips, Fred clearly wants to be the larger-than-life character Gould is known for, but he is no longer able to perform that role. He struggles to adapt to his wife’s deterioration and is increasingly unable to provide everything she needs. He brushes off increasingly frequent slippages of memory, maintaining an outwardly stubborn demeanor, but it is clear he is suffering inside.

The drama centres around a visit from Fred and Susan’s son and daughter, Bob (Fred Melamed) and Carol (Stephanie Roth Haberle),who are grappling with the decision as to whether or not to move them into a nursing home. The additional care is vital but the difficulty lies in getting Fred to accept that he and his wife need to move on from the house they have always lived in. As well as being a peaceful environment, it is a treasure trove of memory, full of trinkets and relics, the embodiment of a life that is gradually slipping out of their minds.

Events do occur in Fred, but all are low key. In one of the main sequences, Bob has a  minor run-in with a music therapist, showing his failure to understand the purpose behind remedies which do not cure the disease – the entire film is about the impossibility of understanding the disease itself. As the family sing together, Ledes questions who exactly the song is benefiting, Fred, Susan, their granddaughter Lila, the music therapist himself? Bob sees only the sadness and discomfort that results from the joy the music induces, and he is not entirely wrong to do so.

Fred only loosely engages with these issues, presenting the surface but little depth. It has a dreamy, inconclusive quality but Ledes is not ambitious enough to make anything remarkable out of an interesting scenario. He is dealing with an illness he knows intimately but it does not come across on the screen. He gives us the tension and frustration, but fails to engage with the pain and love at the heart of it all.

Rob Dickie

The Orphanage (El orfanato)

Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sánchez
Year: 2007
Cast: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep

★★★☆☆

The Orphanage was produced by Guillermo del Toro and is director Juan Antonio Bayona’s first feature film. Thematically, it recalls del Toro’s own work, combining elements of childhood fantasy with material trauma. It is set in an unlikely orphanage, a grand old house complete with a stretch of immaculate beach, a disused lighthouse and a dark, mysterious cave. The central character, Laura (Belén Rueda), lived there as a girl, and has returned as an adult, along with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep), to reopen it.

Ostensibly, The Orphanage is a ghost story. Simón, known for having imaginary friends, begins to play with orphaned ghosts from the past, leading them back into the house with a trail of seashells. The ghosts then take something precious from Simón, a set of coins, and lead him on a treasure hunt to find them, as well as to discover a secret that his parents have been keeping from him. The treasure hunt is the signature of the ghosts, a combination of malevolence and innocent play.

The Orphanage’s ghostly children look sinister, but how much substance do they have?

Starting with an unsettling scene, in which a group of handicapped orphans are welcomed to the house with a masquerade party, the ghosts become a more practical threat. They attack Laura and lock her in the bathroom, while Simón disappears as if into the air. Everything is set up perfectly, but, after this, the film begins to lose its way.

Briefly, it moves out of the orphanage, which is a misjudgement. The setting was never claustrophobic per se, but its removed atmosphere was vital to the film’s effect. An important plot development is made, which reveals the orphanage’s dark history, but this could perhaps have been made differently. There is also a scene in which a medium explores the building, which again is not at all bad, but is not entirely consistent with the rest of the film.

However, the main issue I have with The Orphanage is that, in the end, it shies away from being a ghost story at all, instead going down the route of psychological misdirection. This might have worked if the ghost storyline had been less effectively set up, or had an element of doubt. But the ghost story is what makes the film effective and doing away with it destroys the illusion. Taking the narrative as a embodiment of Laura’s psychological deterioration complicates rather than clarifies matters, and leaves the plot open to all kinds of questions. In my mind, the plot that is eventually implied makes very little sense at all. It is also detrimental to the emotional core of the film.

The Orphanage is at its best when at its most dramatic. It is a dark and atmospheric film, which makes good use of the setting and the childish imagination as a source of suspense. But, it falters towards the end, and ultimately becomes a frustrating experience, which should have been more fulfilling.

Rob Dickie