Starring his own mother Charlotte Rampling, Barnaby Southcombe’s psychological London thriller I, Anna is taking motherhood to task.
Mother And Son by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Shooting his first cinematic feature, it’s a natural, if perhaps awkward, choice for UK television director Barnaby Southcombe to cast his mother, and darling of the Croisette, Charlotte Rampling in the leading role. Never has Rampling appeared so vulnerable, the actress’s lion heart from her French films transformed to English jelly in this tale of murder, motherhood and madness. And while it’s strange to see Rampling reduced to toothless, instable Anna, perhaps the most awkward phenomenon is the Hitchcock-like punishment Southcombe doles out on her. With all the sadism of Hitch and Tippi, Southcombe forces his leading lady to perform fellatio while all the while levelling accusations of prolicide and neglect against her. As such, there’s a strangely sadomasochistic frisson to I, Anna – as the silver-blonde actress atones for the sins of the mother. A moody madness melodrama and a fractured exploration of distorted maternal relationships, I, Anna is an intriguing police thriller, but is this public laundry washing all just too close to home?
And home, it turns out, is the Barbican’s iconic Ink Building. At least that’s the victim’s home and as such the film’s stylistic hearth – the locus for much of I, Anna‘s story and its meetings between middle-aged speed dater Anna and Detective Chief Inspector Bernie Reid, played by Gabriel Byrne. They’re both often displaced to the bottom of the screen – equally lost and helpless, unable to control their surroundings. But it’s Anna’s story that Southcombe focuses on – Bernie’s ejection from the family home and immersion into work deemed familiar and self-explanatory, even if his matter-of-fact humility, convincing himself he’s not a good detective just a diligent one, lends a Vertigo-style vulnerability and unpredictability to this leading man. Anna, on the other hand, is the well-heeled suspect of a murder case; a lonely but well-to-do saleswoman trying to meet a man to spend her days with at a series of speed-dating sessions. She’s more than a little desperate for company, in an opening sequence begging her ex-husband as it turns out, to be included in a family trip with her daughter Emily and grand-daughter. But she’s not so lonely she can forgive all of humankind’s failings – scrupulously alert to her fellow daters’ fatty necks, stained teeth and loose chins.
It’s after such a champagne-filled evening that Anna finds herself at home in the Ink Building with rough diamond George, and after sex turns to violence, self-defence turns to murder. Prone to black-outs, Anna remembers nothing. And no sooner does Bernie arrive on the scene than we witness Anna sipping tea in an all-night caff – the very picture of respectability. Returning to the Barbican the following day to pick up a fallen frog-eyed umbrella, this femme fatale begins to realise all is not well, and starts to piece back together the fragments of her shattered memory. Her desire to forget stems from an old trauma and the film’s side-swiping climax, as it’s revealed it’s more than an empty swing Anna’s been absent-mindedly pushing.
The entire film, centred around the one-bedroom flat Anna shares with her daughter and grand-daughter is a phantasmagoria, Emmy’s room of toddler’s toys nothing more than a comforting construct of Anna’s imagination. It is in fact an empty room – a delusional space to rival the locked chamber in Bluebeard or Mother’s room in Psycho in which Anna stores both her guilt and her sense of reality, restricting herself to the painful self-flagellations of the living room sofa bed. Anna’s phone calls to her ex-husband and daughter are in the end revealed to be calls to the answer-phone in her apartment she never listens to, her life a glamorous illusion of self-deceit. And it’s literally a breathtaking moment as Anna recalls her absent-minded negligence of her granddaughter. But Southcombe’s story relies too much on Anna’s simpleton delusions, the Barbican balcony climax reduced too easily into a burst of confused and sticky tears.
Thanks to a clever script and a delicate performance from Rampling, I Anna is an intriguingly Hitchcockian British thriller, but aside from two final-reel punches, Southcombe’s film loses itself somewhere along London’s backstreets. It’s more a whimsical, gentle madness than the terrifying self-obliteration of Norman Bates, and Anna’s repressed backstory and the contemporary murder mystery never quite gel together. Nevertheless, with its story of a woman scratching and clawing at her own private trap, I, Anna is a captivating look at maternal love. Which for Barnaby Southcombe is a very guilty kind of pleasure.
I, Anna is released on 7th December in the UK