WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Anna Poliatova may look like your average supermodel with the rags to riches story that often goes along with it, but there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye. Beneath her beautiful façade lies a trained killer with the sort of keen intelligence and cold ruthlessness that only the best spies have. Who is she working for, though, and what part does she have to play in a showdown between the CIA and KGB in the final years of the Cold War?
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Anna has been shrouded in secrecy with a worldwide embargo to prevent any reviews going up before its day of release (today, internationally) and with no regular press screening of the film, at least in this country. This is only worth mentioning because a) I have literally just gotten out of seeing the film at a packed public preview mere hours before the film is due to be released to the public, so I haven’t exactly had the chance to ruminate on it before giving my considered response and b) this sort of heavy embargo is often a sign of a studio having absolutely no faith in their film so keep it squarely under wraps in the fervent hope that critics won’t prevent audiences from giving it a shot before rotten word-of-mouth sinks it.
The very good news is that, though Anna is far from a masterpiece, it’s a solidly enjoyable spy-thriller that stands up easily against some of the more questionable material that Hollywood has released this year. The studio, in short, had nothing to fear from reviewers and in a time of year when even big blockbusters can easily get lost in the mix, any even vaguely positive attention paid to what is a relatively minor release can only help its chances at the international box offices.
And, like I say, there’s plenty to be positive about here, even as the flaws are pretty obvious. We’ve had, for a start, a boatload of female-led spy films of late, so Anna initially feels more like Luc Besson jumping on an already pretty crowded train than his going for something as idiosyncratic and often just plain bonkers (if often massively flawed) as his most notable and well-known films. Certainly, after the audacious but messy Valerian, this looks like Besson at his most conservative.
Like the eponymous spy at its centre, though, there may be more going on here than we first suspect and it may, in fact, be even more deranged than most of his more obviously “far out” work. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that you perhaps shouldn’t take the film as seriously as it first appears and that Besson is just as aware of how ridiculous the constant time jumps are as his audience and that he may well actually be going somewhere with them.
Where that is, is undoubtedly massively silly but it’s a lot less rote and conventional than it first appears, and it may just be that the real reason for the heavy embargo against early screenings of the film is that Besson wants to have audiences anything but sure-footed for most of the film. Not so much in terms of the twists, of which there are dozens, but of the fact that this violent and seemingly po-faced spy film may be much more irreverent than it first appears. It may start off looking rather a lot like the surprisingly tough and uncompromising Red Sparrow, but by the time you reach the third act, such comparisons could hardly be more off the mark.
None of this takes away from how messily it mostly comes across, how clumsily structured and tonally inconsistent it is throughout. This isn’t a carefully calibrated satire of the genre any more than it is a straightforward example of the same. There’s a subplot that runs throughout the film, for example, involving our (anti-)heroine’s relationship with a French model that is entirely extraneous to everything else going on in the film and is almost pointedly under-developed but it still somehow ends up being quietly heartbreaking just by virtue of its – and hers – neglect. It’s a film full of these perplexing creative choices, and it’s all but impossible to tell whether the whole thing is an intentional mess or an unintentional success. It probably isn’t the sort of film to review within minutes of seeing it, either way.
It’s not all just mercurial weirdness, though. There’s a lot to like here even if you take the film as full-on but quite run-of-the-mill spy flick. It has plenty of nicely choreographed, shot and edited action scenes that may be the least you might expect from Besson but are something of a rarity in today’s overly-hyper action-movie landscape. It’s probably overly long, but it moves along at a brisk pace and has some very nice cinematography of various locales (Russia! France! The Seychelles!) for when your mind wonders.
Centrally, in Sasha Luss - in her first major film role outside of a small appearance in Valerian – it has a seriously striking and compelling protagonist; all steely kick-assery, beauty and vulnerability at precisely the same time. It’s more than her undeniable good looks that hold our attention: she commands the screen with ease and more than holds her own against established pros like Cillian Murphy, Luke Evans and, most especially, Helen Mirren (all clearly having a blast in supporting roles of various sizes; questionable accents included).
It is, however, clearly the film’s unexpected strangeness that has me liking the film more and more with each passing minute. Though, despite the huge audience with which I saw the film clearly having a blast, it’s also the thing that may alienate some fans and have others missing the point entirely. Welcome to Luc Besson’s world, basically.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:
From Saturday, all reviews will be published as part of News24's new subscription service at R75 per month. You will be able to subscribe from Saturday (8 August). We're looking forward to interacting with you in the comments section below our reviews, that will be open to subscribers. Please let us know if you have any questions about our subscriptions by mailing our editor Herman.Eloff@24.com