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MOVIE REVIEW : All About 'Anna' and Irreconcilable Pangs of Exile

November 13, 1987|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

"Anna" (AMC Century 14, Century City) is the best kind of surprise--a small, frequently funny, fine-boned film set in the worlds of the theater and movies which unexpectedly becomes a consummate study of love, alienation and loss.

Its star turn is by a very American actress, Sally Kirkland, playing a Czech movie star in this New York-made film about the irreconcilable pangs of exile. A 25-year member of the Actor's Studio, Kirkland is one of those performers whose talent has been an open secret to her fellow actors but something of a mystery to the general public. There should be no confusion about her identity after this blazing comet of a performance.

It is the melding of Kirkland's observations, the delicate direction and casting of Yurek Bogayevicz and the screenplay by Polish-born Agnieszka Holland that creates this definitive portrait of a sophisticated European actress, Anna Radkova (Kirkland), remaking her life in the United States. In this case, Anna's is a great talent withering without exercise or the warming sun of appreciation.

It is also the story of a young fellow-refugee Krystyna (the enchanting supermodel Paulina Porizkova), who searches out in New York the "great star" whose dazzling performances she had seen with her mother in Czechoslovakia. In an act of spontaneous warmth, Anna becomes confidante, mentor, mother and savvy, giggling sister to the mottled-toothed waif.

In the fashionable shorthand of high concept, "Anna" has been called a European "All About Eve," but the crucial ingredient to that classic was overpowering ambition. Krystyna is a coltish naif ; her career begins inadvertently, on a parlay of luck, coincidence, high spirits and high cheekbones--and with Anna's wholehearted approval.

Porizkova is bewitching in convincing us of Krystyna's innocent goodness. When, after a night of wine and reminiscence, Anna lays out her tragic, not-uncommon story of life after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia--the year Krystyna was born--and says, muzzily, "You can borrow my life . . . do whatever you want with it," Krystyna's sweet "Thank you," is absolutely guileless.

It is not impossible to predict the outcome of this story of adulation, friendship and competitiveness intertwined. The film's snap comes from its gradations of character and its outsiders' view of the New York scene. For Anna--a distinguished actress in her early 40s--that scene offers such choices as understudying in a horrendous off-off-Broadway production, and Daniel (Robert Fields), her sometimes-lover, a bear of a man with a core of runny caramel.

Screenwriter Holland's ear is deadly-best at moments like Daniel's birthday party at the home of his comfortably well-heeled parents. Eyes alight, his mother proposes her toast, to "a realistic and wise plan" for her son's future. Daniel's moist-eyed return toast is to these paragons, who have "always been there for him," despite his admission that, at 44, he's never been able to support himself or his 7-year-old son, cover his alimony payments or even provide for his various girlfriends. Anna, with an unraveling life and a malevolent eye for irony, almost chokes in hysterical laughter.

Holland also presents a wicked portrait of compromise on the Czech side of the coin: Anna's compatriot, a self-absorbed professor (Stefan Schnabel) from Prague, here on a visit to deliver a paper--and perhaps to deliver Anna back to her homeland. Remembering when she and her now-divorced director-husband were the twin darlings of the Czechoslovakian cinema, he delivers a callous appraisal of Anna's situation in America: "You're an actress and you're gonna die without acting." His bluntness is matched only by his own ability to ignore the corrosive compromises he has made in order to work again in Prague.

Although it is superbly photographed by ex-still man Bobby Bukowski, and its every technical elements are excellent, "Anna" is not always a film in perfect dramatic balance. Director Bogayevicz has a melodramatist's flair for sudden rainstorms to underscore emotional scenes. And that hoary gimmick--a frame of treasured film catching in the projector until the image (Anna's face, what else) burns into brown-black lacy bubbles on the screen--should be given a decent and well-publicized burial.

But these are relatively minor matters. There isn't a faulty performance anywhere, especially Robert Fields' sweet and spineless Daniel and a great bit by the great Ruth Maleczech as the actress who throws herself all too literally into her role. The chemistry between Kirkland and Porizkova is just right, and although your eye is drawn to the perfect planes of the young actress's face, it soon wanders to Kirkland for the pure fascination of seeing what she is thinking and feeling. Whatever it is, we will soon know it.

She can be tortured, hilarious, contemptuous, enraged, humiliated, tender--or anything else you ask of her. And she doesn't have to utter a syllable. Towering over her fellow actresses in this off-Broadway audition, her reading glasses on her nose, her arms folded in hilarious rejection of the madness around her, Kirkland, like the unspeaking woman in Strindberg's one-act "The Stronger," is the strongest thing on the screen and an unparalleled, audacious original.

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