Monday, July 08, 2019

Anna – if only it had been a novel rather than a Cold War female spy thriller movie where the action gave the plot a good pasting

Anna is another entry into the growing genre of female kick-ass spy thriller: Red Sparrow, Atomic Blonde and Salt. Usually these plots are far-fetched and quite secondary to the action sequences. In Anna, the reverse seems to have been the intention with a couple of quite original fight scenes setting the audience up to want more before being fed a complicated dramatic structure that probably looked better on paper than the final edited film.

We learn that Anna is orphaned, in an abusive relationship, and desires to be free. Early scenes establish her physical ability to take care of herself, though the plot more heavily relies on her mental steeliness to be resilient while under pressure. She is drafted in to be a KGB agent with an assurance that five years of service will by her safe passage back into normal life. When that promise is punctured, she begins to look for a way out.

The plot relies on an increasingly tedious and repetitive jumping backward and forward in time to reveal unseen details that unlock the audience’s understanding of the characters and allow the next part of the narrative to be unveiled. I’d love to read the novel upon which the film Anna is based … except, disappointingly, the film’s director Luc Beeson wrote the original screenplay, and there’s no source material to go back to.

It’s often obvious that there is a twist, and sometimes even obvious what the twist is. So the enjoyment of the film becomes a slightly meta game of feeling rewarded as you second guess your way through the final hour, trying to stay a step ahead of the big reveals.

While Sasha Luss excels in Anna’s fight scenes (dangerous with a broken dinner plate and sporting X-Men skill levels of spatial awareness) she becomes more and more sullen as the film progresses, even when ‘in character’ as an undercover agent who is meant to be enjoying themselves. Fellow model, Lera Abova does more with her small part as Mona, Anna’s best friend and lesbian cover partner, while the KGB recruiter (Luke Evans) is a lot more convincing in his role than his hackneyed CIA counterpart (Cillian Murphy).

The most interesting character is the irascible spymaster Olga (Helen Mirren) whose Dame Edna Everage glasses feel like they should have been a MacGuffin but are in fact just untrendy spectacles.

While set mostly in the early 1990s, why is sex still the most common method women are allowed to have on screen to exert power over men? Why can covert surveillance teams not spot another covert surveillance team in the same small park? Why is there a plot excuse to use English (rather than Russian) in a few scenes before pretence is dropped and everyone just speaks in heavily-accented English? A better script would have eliminated these questions and the spare time that audiences have to ask them.

While we wait for the anticipated remakes of Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow (which has three novels to rely on) to be produced, you can still catch Anna in most local cinemas before this pallid fare quickly disappears to streaming services and TV channels with very high numbers.

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