by David Morgan-Brown
A breezy and not-too-dramatic road movie was not an unwelcome entry in the Australian New Wave near the end of the ‘70s, particularly given the number of searing and serious socio-political films that had been previously released in the decade such as Wake in Fright, The Last Wave, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and In Search of Anna’s writer-producer-director Esben Storm’s own predecessor 27A.
This simple tale, more focused on characters than the story surrounding them, follows Tony (Richard Moir), an ex-convict just out of jail, hitch-hiking from Melbourne to Sydney in search of his girlfriend, Anna. He is picked up by Sam (Judy Morris), who’s low-gear temperament and subdued moodiness seems to match that of Tony’s.
Alongside this story is also the story of Tony meeting up with his criminal mates just after getting out of prison, who exact vengeance on him for stashing away his bank robbery money, before Tony begins his voyage to Sydney. This dual pairing of storylines is where In Search of Anna hits its greatest snag – there’s no indication whenever one story crosses over to the other, making this film initially very confusing and it’s only when the editing between the two stories becomes more prevalent that these dual narratives becomes noticeable at all.
It’s the most troubling issue with the film that will likely colour most folks’ first viewing (unless you’re more perceptive than me, which is likely). If you’re willing to give the film a more pure second chance, the clarity in this simple story becomes more endearing and less of a puzzling headache. The burgeoning relationship between Tony and Sam has its delightful moments through their brilliantly written musings on life, though it seems Tony’s search for Anna isn’t high on his priorities as he seems keener on Sam. In fact, despite the title, there’s not much urgency to finding Anna, as it becomes relegated to a C-plot as he seems immediately keen on the rather unreliable lover that is Sam, breaking down much anticipation for this search throughout the film.
The story between Tony and his mates seems to have more genuine weight to it. Chris Haywood is, as usual, rather excellent as Tony’s criminal “mate”, the curiously named Jerry Maguire, a mindless and more sporadic counterpart to Tony’s quest for serenity. His solipsistic philosophy is that he considers himself number 1 and everyone else ought to do the same for themselves. His other philosophy is “win some, lose some”, though throughout the film it seems Tony’s doing the winning and Jerry’s doing the losing.
These accompanying storylines, despite all their confusion and aimlessness, culminate in a terrifically staged climax that zips between the two stories seconds at a time: Tony pushes his criminal mates into a tense and thrilling corner, whereas his relationship with Sam enters into a surreal zoom-heavy territory that emulates British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg at his zaniest. After all the moody stillness of the film and its characters, it’s the more outwardly enigmatic ending that may be the film’s high point.
I’m sure the soundtrack had its appeal back in the day, featuring plenty of AC/DC (before their music got too expensive), as well as Stevie Wright, The Angels, Stiletto, and Rose Tattoo. But it’s the original score by John Martyn that really lifts and accentuates the emotional impact of the film, its calming soft rock/folk vibe (particularly the title song) is a fairly integral ingredient in the film’s sombre, yet thoughtful mood.
Originally envisioned as a more complex TV series, Storm eventually abbreviated the script down to a feature. Although pre-production and principal photography had no real troubles (aside from some scorn with police over unauthorised filming on freeways), the first cut of the film was 2 ½ hours. Some reshooting commenced and it was ready just in time for its premiere at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, though Storm continued to tinker with it and the film didn’t see a release until a year later in its home country and in the USA, where it got good reviews, but underperformed financially.
Storm’s agonising over editing the dual stories ended up not working as planned, causing more confusion than clarity. There’s plenty to love with In Search of Anna and there’s plenty to be let down by – it’s a well-intended film with a simple and effective realist approach, though it needed even more time in post-production to elevate it beyond a fairly amusing and sometimes powerful curiosity.