If you lost all memory of a deeply painful experience, could you say you had never experienced it? Would your ignorance in that situation count as a blessing, a curse or both?
Though I have never (I think!) been in a position to answer those questions, I am surely not alone in having turned them over in my head as part of an idle brainteasing exercise. The mind sometimes likes to play these games with itself, to question the boundaries of its own perception and retention.
But those boundaries turned out to be anything but a game for Alex and Marcus Lewis, the 54-year-old identical twins who tell their sad and hauntingly singular story in “Tell Me Who I Am,” a new documentary from English director Ed Perkins. Thoughtful and resonant, but also troubling in ways both expected and not, the movie elegantly distills a chain of events that the brothers recounted in their 2013 memoir of the same title.
It begins with Alex recalling a motorcycle accident he experienced in 1982, at age 18, that left him in a coma for six weeks. When he regained consciousness, he couldn’t remember his own name or recognize his own mother; he had no recollection of anyone or anything except, miraculously, Marcus. From the outset, Perkins’ film acknowledges the preternatural connection twins often share, granting them access to the same feelings and premonitions, and binding them in ways that seem to exist beyond the reach of logic. In Alex’s case, that bond, the only memory left intact after his accident, proved instrumental in his recovery.
For most of the film, the brothers speak in solo interviews that are fluidly interwoven, which creates the illusion of a seamless conversation but also emphasizes their separation visually. It’s rewarding to see this story play out not just in the brothers’ words but also in their faces: Alex is clean-shaven, bespectacled and earnest, while the grizzled Marcus seems slightly wearier in spirit.
After the accident, Marcus recalls, he spent days, weeks and months immersing Alex in the stuff of everyday life, teaching him how to ride a bike again and re-familiarizing him with close friends and acquaintances. This early stretch has its lighthearted moments; Alex jokes about being reunited with a girlfriend he didn’t know (and effectively losing his virginity to her twice).
But the music and the mood begin to darken as the brothers turn to the specifics of their sheltered family life outside London, evoked in fragmentary, impressionistic visual re-creations and the recurring shot of two beds side by side. Marcus had to reintroduce Alex to their boisterous, ungainly mother and their strict, distant father, and also to a life where material privilege and emotional deprivation went hand-in-hand.
One of the film’s more unsettling insights is that we are naturally inclined to trust our loved ones, to accept even the oddest details as the unquestionable truth. And so Alex, deeply dependent on Marcus, didn’t worry too much about the strange rules and restrictions governing the large country house they called home: why, for instance, he and Marcus slept in an outdoor shed or why neither of them had a key to the front door.
It wasn’t until years later, after their parents’ deaths, that these questions suddenly resurfaced, as Alex stumbled on shocking revelations that Marcus had deliberately kept from him for years. You can read about those revelations in the brothers’ memoir, and also in interviews that they and Perkins have given to promote the film. I won’t describe the details here, which seems both appropriate and ironic for a movie that’s all about the agonizing complications of what we choose to reveal or not reveal.
The imprecise nature of memory, the limitations of knowledge, the moral imperative to minimize suffering while also being honest: All this is rich, philosophical grist for a movie that functions as both an emotional drama and epistemological detective story. Perkins’ film is neatly (perhaps too neatly) structured in three acts; the first unfolds from Alex’s point of view and the second from Marcus’, while the third brings them together for a long-overdue moment of reckoning.
It’s at this point that “Tell Me Who I Am” becomes not just a record of a story but also an active, therapeutic part of it. The movie attempts to engineer a moment of catharsis between two brothers who have always been inseparably close but who have never brought themselves to have a face-to-face conversation about their deepest wound. Their meeting is rooted in a haunting contradiction: one brother’s need to forget and another’s desperation to remember.
But as powerful as it is to see this restrained yet raw outpouring of emotion, it also seems oddly diminished by the documentary’s tidy, symmetrical presentation. The problem isn’t that significant elements of Alex and Marcus’ story have been either glossed over or left off-screen (including the matter of their younger brother, who goes unmentioned) or that the truth of what happened to them naturally invites more and more questions. Every documentary must necessarily and understandably limit its field of inquiry. Still, there is something a bit too pat, even reductive, about the redemptive conclusion this one attempts to forge for its subjects.
Then again, after nearly 90 minutes of having the rug pulled out from under us, perhaps we are meant to take even that conclusion with a grain of salt. It’s possible that “Tell Me Who I Am” is putting our own suggestibility to the test, teasing us for the neat conclusions and emotional satisfactions we crave in life as well as art.
“No more silence, no more secrets,” one brother says near the end, offering what feels like a definitive last word. But in its most rewardingly complicated moments, this absorbing, incomplete documentary reminds us that there is nothing definitive about what we think we know.
‘Tell Me Who I Am’
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Opens Oct. 18 at Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; streaming on Netflix