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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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit