Memory review | Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard shine in heavyweight drama

memory review peter sarsgaard jessica chastain
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Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard make light work of an austere drama with some heavyweight themes. Our review of Memory:

Most filmmakers baulk at putting even one taboo subject in their work, but Memory boldly tackles at least three. It’s an austere, downbeat drama from writer-director Michel Franco, who’s no stranger to making films about realities that other storytellers might prefer to avoid – he previously made, among other things, 2015’s quietly superb Chronic, which starred Tim Roth as a nurse caring for terminally ill patients. Like that film, though, Memory is made more than palatable thanks to its detailed, watchable leading performances – this time from Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard.

Chastain plays Sylvia, a recovering alcoholic and adult care worker who raises her 13 year-old daughter in a less-than-salubrious area of New York. Having been coaxed into attending a high school reunion by her younger sister, Olivia (Merritt Wever), Sylvia meets Saul (Sarsgaard) – a somewhat crumpled, solitary widower who we later learn is suffering from dementia.

At first, we’re not sure what to make of Saul – that he chooses to follow Sylvia home from the reunion doesn’t exactly make him seem trustworthy – and Franco’s detached photography only adds to the air of paranoia. As Franco’s omnipresent camera cuts between the daily lives of these two disparate characters, however, the story gradually teases out their contrasts and similarities.

Olivia is weighed down by a traumatic history she would perhaps rather forget; Saul, on the other hand, is cut adrift by his inability to retain information or orient himself in the bustling city. In an intriguing stylistic choice, Olivia is often shown in intimate close-ups, while Franco and cinematographer Yves Cape film Saul in isolating medium shots – a means, perhaps, of contrasting Olivia’s claustrophobic headspace with Saul’s fading cognition. Saul is gradually losing touch with himself, and we as an audience can only watch him from a distance.

As Sylvia’s relationship with Saul shifts from distrust to begrudging carer to tentative romance, complications arise from elsewhere; Saul’s controlling brother, Isaac (Josh Charles) disapproves of his newfound relationship. Sylvia’s daughter, Anna (Brooke Timber), also comes into the orbit of Sylvia’s estranged and quietly manipulative mother, Samantha (Suspiria’s Jessica Harper), who’s the closest thing Memory has to an outright villain.

Franco’s use of real New York locations – most seemingly shot on grey autumn days – and what feels at times like semi-improvised dialogue give Memory a realistic patina that only falters once or twice. The most glaring instance comes in one late revelation, otherwise beautifully framed by Cape, in which the fumbling of words and pregnant pauses tread an uneasy line between realism and am-dram awkwardness.

Otherwise, though, Memory is an engaging, measured story that deals with such party-clearing subjects as abuse, mental decline and dreadful narcissistic parents. But through its delicate performances from Chastain and Sarsgaard, Franco manages to find humanity – and dare we say it, even a sliver of hope – among all the grey, autumnal despair.

Memory is in UK and Irish cinemas from 23rd February.

Read more: The top 35 must-see films of 2024

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