Following his superlative turn as a betrayed secret agent in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” Mark Strong was long overdue for a lead role. And for once the sepulchrally handsome British actor gets to be the good guy in “Anna,” a likable if overly familiar psychological thriller about a “memory detective” charged with rummaging through the repressed recall of a troubled young woman accused of a terrible crime. The film opens June 6 in limited release.
No doubt the NSA and Google are working furiously in tandem to create a similarly helpful gizmo that fits, let’s say, inside your left nostril. But they’ll have nothing on the “remote viewing” practiced by Mindspace, a shadowy outfit headed by a psychiatrist (Brian Cox, leading with cleft chin and strange hair). The suspiciously genial shrink assigns Strong’s John Washington, a troubled seeker of truth, with flushing out the repressed traumas of Anna, a poor little rich girl played with intelligent enigma by Taissa Farmiga, who’s every bit as poised and ethereally lovely as her big sister, Vera.
With special effects smoothly integrated by Spanish director Jorge Dorado, the film quickly dispatches John into Anna’s head, which is crowded with mostly adverse experience. Anna may not be the victim she seems, but the healer isn’t exactly in the pink of mental health himself. Returning to work after suffering a major loss and a mild stroke, John is unsure whether he still has his mojo. Still, he must persuade Anna, who has gone on hunger strike after being accused of murdering three girls at her pricey boarding school, to eat. That will turn out to be the easy part.
Hands entwined in seance mode, the two begin sifting through the girl’s troubled past to nail the many caretakers who might have made her the cripplingly sensitive wreck she is today. A bond grows between them; the psychoanalytically minded may suspect a galloping case of transference, or perhaps Anna’s a bad seed with better mind-control skills than John’s.
Then again, Anna’s sprawling mansion, not to mention the big, bad forest outside, are riddled with unreliable narrators and nasty habits, for some reason mostly played by British actors with variable American accents. While this adds a satisfyingly ambiguity to the plot, none of the potential enablers of Anna’s distress — toxic family, friends, shrink, nanny — is quite as lethal as Guy Holmes’ shopworn script, which commutes between the cliche (“You’ve been under a lot of pressure lately”) and the ridiculous (“I want you to think of all the key moments in your life by tomorrow”).
Separately and together, John and Anna wander through a labyrinth of dark corridors full of ticking clocks, metronomes, spiral staircases and winking blood-red metaphors that continually reopen the question of who’s abusing whom, and who’s really in charge of the memory banks. To say nothing of the extravagantly Freudian water gushing from every available outlet, heavens included.
“Anna” closes with a clever if not entirely unexpected flourish that calls into question everything you’ve assumed has gone before and riffs on the way we condense and rejigger our pasts to protect our wounded psyches and avoid facing upsetting realities. If only the movie didn’t insist on constantly telling us what it has quite clearly shown.