Director: Barnaby Southcombe
Runtime: 87 minutes
I, Anna, the directorial debut of Barnaby Southcombe, is exactly one third of a good movie. It is also roughly one third of a good performance from leading lady Charlotte Rampling. Unfortunately, before one can get to the film's good third, one must first trudge through the (admittedly well-photographed) first two thirds, and they aren't easy going. Despite rescuing itself in the last act, I, Anna takes far, far too long to become consistently compelling, resulting in a semi-admirable misfire, rather than a promising debut.
Based on the novel by Elsa Lewin, the film follows Anna Wells (Rampling), a 50ish divorcee who spends many a night making the rounds at speed-dating events across London. One night she goes home with the agressive George Stone (Ralph Brown), who is found murdered the next morning. Enter DCI officers Bernie Reid (Gabriel Byrne) and Kevin Franks (Eddie Marsan), who believe Stone's death is linked to drug-smuggling violence.
Yet before I, Anna can even hit the 15 minute mark, Southcombe's pacing has already become a large hurdle. Despite some nice musical touches via the score, and some moody and nicely framed shots, the plot remains sluggish. It doesn't help matters that two divergent paths - Anna's seemingly normal life and the investigation - both take ages to intertwine, but also feel as though they've been written far too vaguely. After being introduced to Anna, the story's jump to the investigation is a distraction that takes up equal time across the first hour. It doesn't help matters that Byrne's performance fails at subtlety and emotional reserve. Rather, he comes off as sleepy, and even a little bored, even at the film's emotional high point. Marsan does his best to liven things up by at least injecting some energy into his role, but it's too thin a part to make much of a difference.
As for Rampling, she's quite good once the films lurches into the final act. Yet for the first hour (58 minutes, to be precise), the film requires her to be so distant and opaque that there ends up being precious little for her to do. There are occasional shifts across her face or in her eyes that she communicates well, but the first hour or so is annoyingly thankless and underwritten. If it weren't for the final 30 minutes, I'd be tempted to label the film a criminal waste of a supremely talented actress.
However, I can't deny that the final half hour did engage me, both from a narrative and emotional standpoint. This isn't a case of a film being a slow-burner (though it is pleeeeeeeenty slow). This is a case of a film miraculously finding its footing just in time to end on a borderline satisfying note. The final act not only affords Rampling the chance to delve into richer emotions (make that any emotional at all), but it gets to the bottom of a key part of the story, one which you'll have figured out loooooooooong before the detailed revelation arrives on screen (to be fair, the key flashback is somewhat arresting). For the first time, I, Anna develops a sense of momentum and purpose, and it's a shame that it happens so late in the game. Southcombe goes too heavy on atmosphere for almost an hour, and then tries to reconcile this by giving his full attention to performances and storytelling at the end. It's hard to get too harsh, considering that it's Southcombe's debut, but it is indicative of a problem one often sees in directorial debuts that enter thriller territory: narrative drive and character building are suffocated by labored attempts at atmosphere.
In fairness, once Southcombe starts getting to the emotional core of his story, he achieves some decent results, at least with Rampling (who also happens to be his mother). Yet, as is often the case it these sorts of films, the good stuff is too little, and comes too late. It's not that Southcombe's film doesn't showcase promise, because it absolutely does. There's just too little promise scattered across roughly 90 minutes to get terribly excited about.