Wednesday 22 January 2020

On demand: "Tell Me Who I Am"

Ed Perkins' twisty doc Tell Me Who I Am has some rich ingredients: with its tale of twin brothers, memory loss and obsessive Polaroid-taking (and keeping), it initially seems to play like the non-fiction Memento, although messy interventions from real life means that'd make an altogether misleading poster quote. We open on Alex and Marcus Lewis, fiftysomething upper-middle class siblings from the English Home Counties; the story they're telling is how Alex emerged from a coma in the wake of a motorcycle accident he was involved in aged 18 with no knowledge of who he was, and how Marcus gradually brought his brother back up to speed. So far, so uplifting. That this tale is not quite as simple nor as heartwarming as it first appears is conveyed by Perkins' insistently wintry framing, and the revelation that much as there were places Alex couldn't reach in his mind, so too there were rooms in the sprawling country pile the boys were raised in that were deemed inaccessible. (The film places an unusual emphasis on house keys, for reasons that will become clear.) What's crucial, it transpires, is not what Marcus was giving back to Alex - inklings of a happy, normal childhood - but what older brother was keeping from younger brother all along.

You'll quickly land on your own theories for this, and these will be borne out or discredited around the halfway mark via the deployment of a bombshell word that blows this story, and the pretences it entailed, clear out of the water. In the meantime, you may start to feel a growing tension, not just between the brothers - sundered and interviewed in separate rooms, like the subjects of a police investigation - but within the film itself; between this matter-of-fact, anecdotal retelling of a tale, and a set of implications weightier than an 82-minute inquiry can altogether comfortably support. Early on, we learn that Marcus used to give his brother ten-minute briefings before they entered old friends' houses, reminding him who they were there to see, and how and why they became friends in the first place. Perkins' film is not unlike one of those briefings, all told - a carefully sustained release of information - except that we eventually get the whole picture, what Marcus left out first time round, which brings us into close contact with our old pal the banality of evil. I think Perkins sees something consoling in the way the brothers looked out for one another in a moment of crisis, and I think he's not entirely wrong to cling to this; still, it can seem like such small, cold comfort when set against an ugly trauma that the film just can't square away.

Leaning heavily into its Gothic imagery - the now-empty childhood home, approached like the abandoned train carriage in Twin Peaks; lots and lots of leafless branches bisecting the frame - Tell Me Who I Am feels unnecessarily chilly in spots. Would it have gained in warmth by reaching out to those wives and girlfriends who helped patch these fellows up and restored them to something like full working order? Instead, for a final act, Perkins sets the Lewises down face-to-face: a striking coup de théâtre, yes, and a moving one, too, in part because it's the first time that we see Marcus drop the facade he'd previously taken refuge behind. Yet the set-up raises more questions than this troubling film really has answers for. Why hadn't the brothers - self-evidently so close in all other aspects of their lives - spoken on this subject before? Were they waiting for the right film crew to come along? (And the hypotenuse of these questions, suggested by Perkins' use of video playback: did they need the distance the camera provided - something else to hide behind - before they felt they could discuss these matters in any depth?) Tell Me Who I Am merits watching and thinking about, even if all it leads you to is the conclusion that human beings can be such strange, self-defeating creatures; and that there are some humanoids - specifically a certain species of Englishman - who could spend their entire lives talking round a subject, when it might be substantially easier for all to talk through it.

Tell Me Who I Am is now streaming on Netflix.

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