Sunday, 11 October 2015

Remainder - the film

To Tate Modern last night, to see the world premiere of Remainder, a highlight of the BFI London Film Festival. 

Based on Tom McCarthy's outstanding debut novel, the script and direction was by the Israeli video artist Omar Fast, and marks his feature debut. It's a film worth seeing, and even worth going to see (and I  discovered that Tate Modern is open until 10pm on Saturday nights and with hardly a living soul in the building. A revisit soon seems in order, as the cavernous building works best without crowds).

Remainder's premise was achieved briskly in the novel but interminably in the film, which begins with twenty minutes of throat-clearing. In the novel all we are told is all we need to know: that the protagonist has received a colossal sum in damages for injuries and amnesia sustained in an accident he cannot remember, allowing him to spend - or fritter - lavish amounts of cash on realising increasingly elaborate, highly personal recreations of what may or may not be actual memories from his past. At a literal level this is about the negotiation of post-traumatc stress. McCarthy is too clever and accomplished a writer to investigate such a banal subject and his novel is a magnificent interrogation of - well, what it means to be human, and the contingencies of existence.

In the movie we get all the legal background in explicit but implausible detail, with unctuous lawyers and non-disclosure clauses and all that paraphernalia. A particular sum of compensatory money is specified (£8.5 million), which doesn't seem so much these days, given the grand projects that follow - and I wasn't alone in mentally ticking off the likely cost of acquiring a large London property, recruiting and training actors, building sets and so on (Think Synechdoche New York). I found myself wondering whether it could really be achieved, even in part. The literalist approach to finance made bean-counters of us all, and the realist grounding worked against the more phantasmagoric elements of the novel and, indeed, the film. I also found myself wondering whether the sum was a reference to the movie's modest budget. The film is a brave attempt at an uncommercial subject but in cinematic terms disappointingly inert (while the novel was richly and rewardingly inert, in common with much experimental fiction). There's a situation but no plot to speak of, no character arc, no development and, a few moments aside - when, for instance, the hero assembles and briefs a cast to inhabit his refurbished apartment building, there to perform, at a moment's notice, the same micro-tasks such as frying liver, practising Chopin on the piano or revving a motorcycle engine - we get a lot of faces interacting, with dialogue that veers between the cryptic and overly-explicit, untethered by McCarthy's smart reflections on consciousness and personality that made the novel such a brilliantly compelling original. 

McCarthy himself makes a brief self-referential (or selfie-referential) appearance as an image on someone's mobile phone - we needed more of this, I think. Film offers no end of opportunity for the director to comment on the process of production - one might have expected cutaway shots of the actors employed in the elaborate apartment reconstructions 'off role', as it were, commenting no-doubt-sceptically on the film they were making. Michael Winterbottom did this with wit and flair in A Cock and Bull Story, his under-rated take on Sterne's Tristram Shandy.

There are plenty of bright ideas jostling for the viewer's attention and it's a rare pleasure to watch a new film that repays close attention throughout, and one that prompts no end of (in my case) half-baked intellectual responses. The best ideas were those sourced directly from the novel - the departures were less achieved and convincing. In a clunky reference to Proust the South London apartment building where things unfold is named Madlyn Mansions (geddit?). As far as I recall this was not in the novel so please correct me if I'm wrong (and I suppose there's a further reference to the Kim Novak character in Hitchcock's sublime Vertigo). The most annoying departure is an entirely gratuitous snog between Sturridge and Arsher Ali, who plays Naz, the general factotum elicited to make things happen. In the novel Naz (an unflappable Jeeves-like amanuensis) becomes increasingly committed to, and complicit in, the project - a journey here crassly condensed into a hairy and prolonged French kiss.

Casting seemed off-kilter. Tom Sturridge has such a lean and chiselled expression that he always appears to be in profile, whichever way he's looking. At one point he wears the most preposterous beard and wig (not, I'm sure, intended as a joke). His look is mostly dazed and impassive, the exception being when he describes his need to have the smell of frying liver waft up to his room in the newly-repurposed apartment building. He gives the word 'waft' an engagingly connoisseurial inflexion.

Cush Jumbo as the American girlfriend (not in the original novel) was given little to do. Danny Webb as the Gorblimey crime consultant blew in from another movie halfway through, lifting things considerably, but this was the point at which genre conventions began to take over. Webb has a chortling warmth that none of the other actors were invited to approximate, and with his arrival the film is repurposed into a more-or-less straightforward heist movie, with lots of shouting and shooting and bloodshed and comeuppance, with an existential top-dressing. Picture Rififi remade by Peter Greenaway (and I was more than once reminded of Greenaway's more purgatorial excursions of the 1980s). 

If you're looking for a metaphysical and philosophical movie exploring memory and consciousness and  identity I'd certainly recommend Remainder. I'd also recommend more mainstream crowd-pleasers such as Groundhog Day, or The Truman Show or, of course, Vertigo. And there's always Remainder the novel, which is superb. McCarthy's having a pretty good year - he's currently shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Goldsmiths Prizes for his most recent novel Satin Island. He was not directly involved  in the making of the film and I'm not sure what he made of it all - he was in the audience, and on the Q & A panel that followed the screening, but we had to leave before that kicked off.

You can read the very perceptive Variety review by Catherine Bray here.

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