The fallibility of memory, and its dramatic possibilities, has often intrigued filmmakers. The amnesiac takes centre stage in everything from The Bourne Identity to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Christopher Nolan's Memento. In the documentary genre, Rupert Murray's brilliant Unknown White Male dealt with a British man who woke up on a subway train in New York's Coney Island with retrograde amnesia, unaware of who he was or how he came to be there.
A Netflix original documentary, Ed Perkins's Tell Me Who I Am starts in a similar fashion. It's the story of identical twins Alex and Marcus Lewis. After a motorcycle accident in 1982, Alex, 18, came round from his coma to realise he'd lost his memory. In his hospital bed, he had no idea who he or those around him were – except his sibling, Marcus. "It started to dawn on me that I really didn't know anything," he explains. "Everything had gone."
This "blank canvas" is the starting point for Perkins's film, which comforts you into thinking it will be one thing before violently pulling the proverbial rug from underneath your feet. Mixing hazy recreations – the motorbike crash is shown before even the credits roll – with some archive family photographs, the majority of the film is to-camera interviews with Alex and Marcus, separately. The location? A nondescript warehouse-like space shrouded in monochrome drapes.
Even the subjects follow this prescribed sombre colour scheme: the silver-haired, bespectacled Alex sports a light grey T-shirt while Marcus, bearded and greying also, wears black. Old-style photos aside, primary colours have been deliberately sucked out by Perkins (a red-tinged image of a brain scan is one of the few splashes of brightness in an otherwise drab world, foreshadowing a story that will get darker with every passing minute). Perkins divides the film into three acts. The first is simply Alex recounting his return home, being reacquainted with his friends and his family. "He had the mental age of a nine-year-old," says Marcus, who became his saviour – the one person to teach him everything again afresh, from tying his shoelaces to riding a bike. "The world seemed very scary," says Alex, with good reason. Even television shows like old Tom and Jerry cartoons were seen with new eyes.
Perkins cut his teeth on several documentary shorts – his 2018 film, Black Sheep, was nominated for an Oscar – and his transition to a full-length non-fiction film is seamless. There's nothing flashy about its construction, perhaps because what's to come is so harrowing. The film has already been preceded by a book of the same name – published in 2013 and ghostwritten by Joanna Hodgkin. Naturally, the book has more of their background, Perkins stripping down to the bare essentials. There are moments of humour. Alex, who has cunningly learnt to fake it with the friends he can't remember, even has a girlfriend. "She was very nice and she didn't really notice that I had no idea who she was!" At this point the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is almost jaunty, lulling audiences towards a possibly happy conclusion. Yet nothing could be further from the truth in a story that deals with abuse, trauma and the cold, hard shock of discovering who you really are.
Early on there's a clue that all is not well in the Lewis household. Their father was an incredibly distant individual, who just shook Alex's hand when he returned home. He didn't even visit him in hospital. But it's the boys' relationship with their mother that ultimately proves to be far more painful. The film hinges on a discovery by Alex in an attic of a photograph that forces him to question everything he knows. What follows is highly disturbing as he begins to realise that his mother isn't the woman he thought she was (or at least, who he was told she was, given his memory issues). Worse still, Marcus – the one human being he's trusted all this time – has been withholding information, repressing childhood events in a desperate attempt to move on.
As Tell Me Who I Am unfolds, it'll likely break your heart; watching two grown men break down in tears, as they come to terms with their past and each other, is not easy. But, as Perkins recognises, the power of this story is such that you can't help but be mesmerised by it. Filled to the brim with horror and humanity, it's unforgettable.
Tell Me Who I Am is on Netflix from Friday, October 18