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Remainder is a study of repetition - but a fresh study of repetition

This story of memory loss shows how meaning accrues through duplication. Plus: Ma Ma reviewed.

The video artist Omer Fast specialises in reconstructions with a twist. One of his art pieces, featuring interviews with Polish extras from Schindler’s List, demonstrated how history and memory can be overwritten by film, while another imagined a grieving couple who hire actors to play their dead son. His knack for destabilising truth and authenticity make him the perfect director for the psychological thriller Remainder.

The film itself is a facsimile of sorts, having been adapted by Fast from the 2005 novel by Tom McCarthy, though the director has fashioned a dazzling new ending that lends the tale some topspin. Given Fast’s preoccupation with mirror images, it must have given him a little buzz to cast as McCarthy’s hero Tom yet another Tom – the posh, pale string bean Tom Sturridge, who looks haunted enough to spook a ghost.

It’s only right that Remainder, as a study of how human beings find meaning through repetition and duplication, should wear its influences plainly. There’s a touch of Memento to this story of a young man whose memory is almost completely wiped after he is struck by machinery falling from the sky. He plugs the gaps by using his ­multimillion-pound payout to fund the meticulous restaging of his tattered memories – a throwback to Synecdoche, New York, in which a theatre director mounts a scale version of his own life, casting actors to play himself and everyone he knows.

The first 20 minutes of Remainder are ponderous, but once Tom begins to snap out of his daze the film wakes up, too. He hires a fixer, Naz (Arsher Ali), to help realise his berserk plan of reconstructing a particular block of flats in south London and its attendant details. Everything has to be just so, from the cats on a neighbouring rooftop to the smell (fried liver) and sounds (Chopin) drifting up the stairs. Through these details, he hopes to rediscover his lost identity.

Fast’s spick-and-span visual style uses images that could have come from an ­estate agent’s brochure to underline the film’s satirical points about gentrification, while also finding room for artfully blurred areas within the frame that hint at unreachable memories. Violence keeps creeping in, ­administered by everything from Tasers to paper clips, until the very reconstructions become irrevocably bloody.

For all its sophistication, Remainder never stops being fun, its combination of arch wit and formalist neatness suggesting an ­urban Peter Greenaway. Sturridge gives a performance of delicate comic control as a man who becomes the director of his own life in order to understand it. As Tom auditions people to play his neighbours, specifying exactly when they should put out the rubbish and even what they should be thinking about, you feel that the great perfectionist Stanley Kubrick must be smiling down on him and saying: “Attaboy.”

Kubrick’s imprimatur was highly prized, so it is no small matter that he expressed admiration for Julio Medem’s creepy 1993 mystery, The Red Squirrel. The only mystery about Medem’s new film, Ma Ma, is how a once-fascinating director could have made something so devoid of fibre or personality. This star vehicle for Penélope Cruz exposes her physically in the first scene, in which she undergoes a mammogram, but never scratches her blandly beneficent ­veneer. As Magda, a single mother diagnosed with breast cancer, she suffers nobly and even cracks jokes on the operating table. Nothing is more boring in a character than perfection.

The attention lavished on her leaves the rest of Ma Ma looking undernourished. Parts of the script appear to be unfinished. Magda finds love with a soccer scout who has no trouble getting over the wife and child he lost in an accident; a mere week ­after they’ve perished, he’s sunning himself on holiday. By the time Magda’s doctor pops up on the sand to carry her into the sea for an impromptu examination (well, it’s certainly one way to reduce hospital waiting times) any pretence of realism has been sacrificed. In its place are New Age dream sequences and a depiction of terminal illness that makes Beaches look like a documentary. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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