Documentaries often make us look at difficult facts in a way that provokes further conversation, action or interrogation. But then there is “Tell Me Who I Am,” which gradually unmasks a disturbing truth so resolutely and unnervingly that it requires no further dialogue, just recovery for both the audience and its central protagonist.
Drawing from a startling real life story, director Ed Perkins plants audiences inside a film where mounting mystery climaxes to unsettling concern as we watch an amnesiac grapple with the horrifying reality that is his life.
And it all starts with deceit. Through voiceover and in-person interviews, Perkins begins to unravel 55-year-old Alex Lewis’ shadowy past to the point where he can recall it in his own words — at age 18, as he’s waking up from a coma following a tragic motorcycle accident that resulted in him losing his memory. As traumatic as the event was, Alex remembers being comforted by the familiar face of his twin brother Marcus, whose uncanny resemblance provided the one area of certainty in his life.
So Alex instantly trusts him to refill his memory with things about his life: their home, their friends, his girlfriend, his interests, and their relationship with their parents. It becomes evident that the two had a very tight relationship.
Perkins then shifts to Marcus’ perspective and sensitively illuminates each of his charming details with faded old photographs of the boys — sons of English aristocrats, as he explains — hanging out on a beach along with video footage of them celebrating birthdays and partying with friends. As a result, Alex awkwardly but comfortably eases back into his posh and pleasant life as the audience watches, enrapt.
We like Alex, and we have no reason to question anything Marcus says, not even the fact that the brothers don’t have keys to their own home (preferring to live by themselves in a shed right outside) and that they’re not allowed into their father’s rooms even when they are permitted inside the manor. They’re young men who get to live on their own and, presumably, come and go as they please. And their parents are, once again presumably, private patricians who cherish their solitude when they’re not entertaining crowds of people. It makes sense.
But as normal and lighthearted as everything is presented on screen, Perkins steadily puts a darker focus on the Lewis home, which becomes even dimmer following the parents’ untimely deaths when the boys were in their early 30s. Thanks to a marvelous details created by set decorator Clare Andrade and production designers Alexandra Walker and Guy Thompson, we suddenly see the manor as less of sanctuary for the young men and more of a possible hellscape.
One of the reasons why “Tell Me Who I Am” is so exceptional is because it uses the element of trust and truth, two things we depend on particularly in documentary filmmaking, as the formidable weapons they can be. Because there is a subtle but undeniable shift before and after the parents’ deaths, marked by Marcus’ apathy, we begin to question what we’re watching. We watch intensely as the façade in front of us crumbles when Alex discovers an old photograph of him and his brother naked together.
Perkins masterfully allows our shock and horror to fester as Alex recalls confronting his brother about the photo, asking him the question that at this point is on the audience’s mind: were he and his brother molested? Marcus, as he confirms in his POV voiceover, only answers in the affirmative, unable to articulate any further detail.
It’s a blunt statement that brings everything we’ve learned about Marcus’ carefully-curated version of the truth into horrifying focus: the shed furnished with just two cots, the inability to have keys to the house, the glorious house parties revisited in a rapidly deteriorating lens, the photographic image of a happy, smiling mother melting in the light of truth. Perkins brilliantly returns to each of these storytelling stamps without revealing the full extent of what actually happened with Alex and Marcus.
That’s one of the most effective facets of “Tell Me Who I Am.” Out of respect for the story and the brothers’ healing — an ongoing process — Perkins doesn’t just give the audience a wallop of information to digest. With the help of editors David Charap (“Sunset Song”) and Andy R. Worboys, he crafts a competing dialogue between Alex and Marcus, shot separately in dark rooms in the present day. The film draws us inside a story of trauma that culminates in a painful process for men who, for three decades, have struggled to push forward together, with the mystery of exactly what happened to them as boys continuing to plague Alex.
Though much of the nearly 90-minute runtime is spent manipulating an increasingly appalling truth (that sadly does not end at molestation), even down to the compellingly reenacted scenes with Kathleen Ray and Andrew Caley as the parents, “Tell Me Who I Am” ultimately chronicles a brave and difficult journey between two men struggling to overcome their traumatic past. One is emotionally crippled by the thought of revisiting the trauma, and therefore wants to shield his brother from it. And the other, whose past was stolen from him, desperately wants to learn the truth.
Marked by evolving degrees of miraculous vivacity, dread, despair, and ultimately hope, “Tell Me Who I Am” reflects a fraternal relationship equally encumbered by truth and lies but strengthened by love and an unflinching revelation in real time. It is utterly staggering.