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.

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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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

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