Letty’s not dead! But oh dear, she’s hanging out with the bad guys and shooting at her ex-boyfriend, Vin Diesel. Why? Because she’s suffering from amnesia, which makes you do anything the screenwriters want you to do! Fast & Furious 6 uses one of the oldest tricks in the book to resuscitate a character who bit the dust two sequels ago, paper over plot holes, and provide the hero with all the motivation he needs to drive faster and more furiously.
Where would movies be without amnesia? There would be fewer Philip K. Dick-style SF mind-games, for a start. Less of Tom Cruise learning the truth about himself in Oblivion, or James McAvoy getting bopped on the head and forgetting where he stashed that valuable painting in Trance. Getting bopped on the head, by the way, seems to be the preferred movie method of turning amnesia or or off, like a tap.
And there’s Iain Softley’s Trap for Cinderella, based on Sébastien Japrisot’s novel (already filmed by André Cayette in 1965), with Tuppence Middleton surviving a housefire that leaves her needing extensive plastic surgery, her memory wiped and her best friend dead… You see where this is going? Part of the fun is the film knows you know, so it takes that and runs with it. Nobody liked this much when it came out… except me, because I’m sucker for Preposterous Thrillers involving amnesia, plastic surgery and fraught female friendships. And Middleton is another one of those charismatic, quirky young actresses – the new St Trinian’s Generation – with adorably madcap names (see also: Tamsin Egerton, Ophelia Lovibond, Talulah Riley) whose talent seems fated to be squandered by the British film industry while it falls over itself trying to shoehorn Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch or Eddie Redmayne into everything.
Amnesia and flashbacks go together like fish and chips. We’re all familiar with the device of the fleeting recurring motif to signify fragments of resurfacing memory, such as Cruise’s glimpses of the Empire State Building in Oblivion, or a woman’s voice repeatedly encouraging amnesiac Eduardo Noriega in Abre los ojos (or Cruise in the inferior American remake, Vanilla Sky) to open his eyes. We’re also familiar with the last-minute reveal in which a flurry of flashbacks (with or without voice-over) fill in all the gaps in the plot – the montages that show Mickey Rourke (and us) who murdered all those people in Angel Heart, or that finally jog Tom Berenger into remembering what went down before the car crash that robbed him of his memory at the beginning of Shattered.
The most common use of amnesia nowadays seems to be in the “Who am I really?” scenario, in which we share an amnesiac protagonist’s viewpoint and process of self-discovery as they seek the truth about themselves – a truth that rarely turns out to be palatable, since where would be the fun in discovering you used to be, say, a happily-married accountant? No, in Total Recall, Cypher, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Unknown or Source Code, the recovered memories invariably patch together an exciting past as a secret agent, hitperson, despot or helicopter pilot.
Often overlapping with Who Am I Really? is Dark Secret Amnesia, in which traumatic memories are suppressed and have to be coaxed to the surface for the story to be resolved. Thus in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, amnesiac Gregory Peck is unable to remember either the accidental death of his brother, or the murder of a doctor whose identity he then assumed – and it takes a lot of TLC from Ingrid Bergman and a Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence to jog his memory.
Amnesia is a recurrent theme in 1940s film noir, reflecting the uncertainty of the times and malaise of the post-war male. Forget The Hangover films – the best use of Alcohol-related Amnesia is in Black Angel (adapted from a book by Cornell Wollrich, patron saint of the mental black hole) in which Dan Duryea’s efforts to find his wife’s murderer are hampered because he went on a drunken bender that destroyed the vital memory cells.
But it’s not all anguish; amnesia is also a favourite comic device, leading to amusingly out-of-character behaviour. In the adorable rom-com Overboard, rich bitch Goldie Hawn falls off her yacht and is persuaded she’s hardworking housewife and mom to Kurt Russell’s four unruly children; housewife Rosanna Arquette gets bopped on the head in Desperately Seeking Susan and starts thinking she’s Madonna, while in A Chump at Oxford, Stan Laurel’s forgotten identity as posh “Lord Paddington” resurfaces when he gets hit on the head by a sash window.
And we mustn’t forget Romantic Amnesia, as seen in The Vow, 50 First Dates, Regarding Henry and, granddaddy of them all, Random Harvest. The object of your affections has forgotten everything, including you. How to rekindle the love you share? Or is the only solution to make them fall for you all over again?
Conversely, remembering is not always all it’s cracked up to be. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey actively seek to have memories of heartbreak erased. And as Jason Bourne says, “Everything I found out, I want to forget.”
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in June 2013. It has been edited and added to.