Netflix UK film review: Tell Me Who I Am
Ivan Radford | On 16, Oct 2019Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Ed Perkins
Cast: Marcus Lewis, Alex Lewis
Watch Tell Me Who I Am online in the UK: Netflix UK
Memories are a fascinating thing. We cling to them as crucial building blocks for our identities, but they are as unreliable as a right-wing tabloid headline. The idea that they could be controlled, censored or somehow manipulated is a very real concern for all of us – just look at how many sci-fi films have tapped into that fear over the decades. Tell Me Who I Am, Netflix’s powerful new original film, joins the club of horrifying tales of fabricated memories, but Ed Perkins’ movie is far from a blockbuster. In fact, it’s a documentary.
The film, based on the bestselling memoir of the same name, introduces us to Alex and Marcus Lewis. Twin brothers, they experienced a motorcycle accident at the age of 18 that left Alex without any memories at all, save for one: Marcus was his twin. And so Alex began to rely on Marcus to rebuild his sense of the past – and, in turn, himself. He learnt how they went on happy family holidays to the French seaside. How his parents were cool. How to tie his shoelaces.
But years later, Alex found a photo of the two of them that cast all of that into doubt, plus a cupboard full of secret toys that his parents had never mentioned. What, then, was real? And why had his brother lied to him? What follows is a painful and thoughtful study of memory and truth, from Marcus’ observation that photos are only taken at weddings not funerals to Alex’s depressing inability to understand who he was or where he came from.
Director Ed Perkins has remarkable access to the pair, and he does a brilliant job of immersing us in the distressing limbo of that mental fog. He’s helped by the fact that both brothers are so forthcoming and willing to discuss the dark realities behind the facade that Marcus created for his brother. The film is at its best when they confront each other, both directly and indirectly, and Alex’s earnest plea for understanding and knowledge is met by Marcus’ visibly distressed need to avoid confronting a personal trauma.
These powerfully intimate exchanges are intercut with recreations of key moments – including the motorbike accident – and Perkins does a fantastic job of making what is essentially two people sitting at a table a genuinely cinematic affair. Filming them talking directly to camera gives things an Errol Morris-like vibe, forcing us to confront their life story in their words, but the movie’s attempt to delay its big reveal for as long as possible does occasionally frustrate – a testament, perhaps, to how well it puts us in Alex’s shoes.
The fact that there is another brother in this tale that isn’t focused on at all, though, raises other questions about intentional, or unintentional, filtered perspectives. Indeed, the film leaves you wanting more closure on the wider exposed scandal, rather than this documentary’s narrow scope. Nonetheless, the ethical questions of responsibility, recovery and reconciliation that are raised are extremely affecting, thought-provoking and, often, tough to see unfold. Victims of abuse may find this a difficult watch, but Tell Me Who I Am’s focus on catharsis, communication and familial support makes for a profound, if intense, experience.
Tell Me Who I Am is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.