Remainder (2015)

Remainder first published by

Tom McCarthy’s 2005 novel Remainder concerns an unnamed man who has been left hospitalised and comatose after a freak head injury from “something falling from the sky”, and who, once he has awoken, must undergo the slow, repetitive business of physical rehabilitation, mental recuperation, and the gradual recovery of his fragmented, traumatised identity through elaborately, obsessively staged reconstructions of partial memories and media events. It is also, in its way, a story about movie production. “My memory had come back to me in moving images,” the novel’s protagonist narrates, “like a film run in instalments”. After scouting locations and auditioning actors to help realise the “vision”, he even hires a movie set designer and props master. After all, he is to be both director and bemused hero of his own costly (re)production, and “the activity that it most closely resembles is filmmaking.”

So it makes good self-referential sense that Berlin-based contemporary video artist Omer Fast should adapt this work in much the same way that its main character (now named Tom and played in a compulsive daze by Tom Sturridge) adapts his shattered life. Even as writer/director Fast painstakingly restages scenes (of, precisely, restaging) from the book – in particular the not-all-there hero’s purchase and refurbishment of an entire apartment building for the reenactment, with a large cast and crew, of his sensual, impressionistic memories – Fast also reinvents many details of the novel’s plot, while bringing in some new ideas and associations. Now, in the carefully orchestrated opening (and primal) scene, we actually see the shattering accident that was left so vague in the novel – and we also glimpse (without at first, or possibly ever, fully understanding) the crucial circumstances leading up to it. Now Tom’s friend Greg (Ed Speelers) also works for the lawyer (Nicholas Farrell) who wins Tom his unprecedented 812 million pound settlement for damages (the same number as the title of Federico Fellini’s 1963 film of memory and metacinema). Now Tom’s American visitor Catherine (Cush Jumbo) is an employee at a “posh bank”, was once married to Greg, and plays an altogether more significant rôle in events (whether past or present). Now Tom’s facilitator/producer Naz (Arsher Ali) comes with his BlackBerry upgraded to an iPad. Where in the novel the protagonist was on a damaged quest for authenticity, here Tom is in pursuit of a specific, elusive memory about a boy (Finlay Norman) who – at least at first – appears to be Tom’s forgotten childhood self.

As Tom cycles through his control-freak routines, struggling to retrieve a truth that he can only intuit through ghostly apparitions and trance-like hallucinations, Fast offers a disorienting, troublesome portrait of a blank-slate everyman who in fact comes, like all of us, with his own peculiar specificity and history. Viewers are left uncertain as to where coma ends and recovery begins, or as to what is Tom’s fixed past and what his evolving present. Everything that happens on-screen plays out like a recurring nightmare in a damaged brain, with time and space all mixed up in a loop that decays and degrades without every fully closing. “A never-ending dream of repetitive jerky movements” is how Tom, early on in the film, describes his prolonged hospital stay – yet those words serve equally to characterise not only all his subsequent actions and experiences, but also, as his beautifully written final lines (original to the film) reveal, something more universal about the human condition itself.

So while it replays scenarios familiar from an enigmatic amnesiac thriller, the preoccupations of Remainder are of a decidedly existential bent, far closer to the Möbius-strip narrative and reproductive mania of Synecdoche, New York (2008) than to the braindead genre shenanigans of, say, Before I Go To Sleep (2014). It is an extraordinary feature debut, boldly bewildering, and confident enough in its audience’s intelligence to leave to us the ultimate reconstruction of its mysteries. Expect it to be spinning and spiralling in your brain for days afterwards.

© Anton Bitel