It is no spoiler to say that actor Noah Taylor pops up in a key role late in the adequate-at-best, occasionally involving thriller “Anna.” Like all of the appearances of the rail-thin “Shine” star, it is a welcome one; look no further than his recent work on “Game of Thrones” or his wonderfully obnoxious supporting role in Richard Ayoade’s 2014 masterpiece “The Double.” What is particularly fascinating about Taylor’s appearance in “Anna,” however, is that it underscores how a film like this one could be better. Mark Strong, the dependably intense villain in so many films of the last decade—“Sherlock Holmes,” “John Carter,” “Green Lantern,” “Kick-Ass”—is the lead in “Anna,” and while he gives a fine performance, as usual, the role of a “memory detective” haunted by the death of his wife would have been infinitely more interesting if played by…someone like Noah Taylor.
And that’s the real issue with “Anna”: There is nothing particularly fresh about the film, from its script to its direction to its cast. It comes close, especially by casting the haunting, ever-so-slightly offbeat Taissa Farmiga as the eponymous heroine, but never quite crystallizes into anything memorable. It is, then, a Jaume Collet-Serra production. The director of the WTF-horror thriller “Orphan” and Liam Neeson vehicles “Unknown” and “Non-Stop,” he is an economical filmmaker with a resume of reasonably entertaining, un-ambitious projects. He is the producer of “Anna,” which marks the feature debut of Spanish filmmaker Jorge Dorado. The latter proves an ability to build tension here, especially in the nicely flummoxing opening sequence that establishes just what Strong’s John Washington does as a memory detective.
Overseas, “Anna” was titled “Mindscape,” and that is the name of the company Strong is employed by. Dubbed “the world’s top memory detectives,” the company, led by Brian Cox’s shifty Sebastian, employ gifted individuals with the ability to enter people’s memories. The film spends virtually no time discussing this ability, which is wise; who cares how it came to be? “Anna” states this as fact and gets right to the action, and that’s fine. John Washington (Strong) has been off of work for some time, his situation succinctly described by Sebastian: “It’s been almost two years since the death of your wife. You should move on from what happened to your life. And you know it wasn’t your fault.” Remember what I said about economical filmmaking?
John is low on funds, and jumps at the first case Sebastian offers. Anna (Farmiga) is a wealthy but disturbed teenager on a hunger strike. She is “gifted” like John, and similarly haunted. John’s job is to get Anna eating again, while also digging into her psyche to find what has led her to such an unbalanced state. Time is of the essence, as Anna’s prickish stepfather wants her institutionalized as soon as possible. “You’re testing me to see if I’m a sociopath,” Anna astutely realizes during John’s first visit, clearly aware of the family’s perception of her. John begins to take Anna into her past, a dreary, dread-inducing series of strange interludes at the family’s castle-like mansion and at her snooty boarding school.
Most viewers will be able to quickly interpret what is actually happening here—while director Dorado knows how to frame a flashback, surprise is not his strong suit—even if John is a bit slow to realize. As he leads Anna deeper into her memories, her story becomes increasingly convoluted, involving a mysterious fellow boarding school student known as “Mousie,” a seductive teacher, dirty pictures, and puzzling motives. The film’s final third, like “Anna” itself, feels underdeveloped and a bit low-rent. It is appropriately twisty, but becomes less and less compelling as it progresses and is increasingly silly. Yet it is never dull, and thanks to its actors, always watchable.
“Anna” ends on the verge of a great twist that never comes, and lacks that one last encounter between John and Anna that the audience so desperately desires. Mark Strong and an underused Brian Cox are fine, and Taissa Farmiga demonstrates why she is acknowledged as one of America’s most promising young talents. But she deserves a better role, everyone involved deserves a stronger script. The “memory detective” premise, for example, could inspire greatness from a David Cronenberg or a Nacho Vigalondo. Director Jorge Dorado, too, is a solid filmmaker to keep an eye on. But I keep returning to Noah Taylor. If he was the lead, would the serviceable “Anna” be one to remember? It is hard to say. However, the film would certainly feel more ambitious, and in the thriller world, that counts for a lot. [C+]