All is not as it seems in “Close to Me,” Sundance Now’s psychological drama about a married woman and mother who forgets the last year of her life following a traumatic event. A personal investigation into what caused it consumes all six episodes of the limited series, which stars Connie Nielsen and Christopher Eccleston in a middle-of-the-road effort that lands somewhere between the soap opera simplicity of a Lifetime movie and the kind of beautiful hellscape that Nielsen’s fellow Dane, filmmaker Lars von Trier, is known for writing. There’s even a sequence involving a dead canine scored to a rhyme about a copper fox, recalling the fabled “Chaos Reigns” moment in “Antichrist” (2009). If only “Close to Me” were as decidedly confrontational in its style and structure.
What prevents the series from being the haunting reverie it strive for is that it’s all-too-familiar — content with playing inside a box that’s already been shredded. It may provide varied opportunities for added drama and unpredictability, but the broad “woman with amnesia” storytelling trope could use an overhaul.
Jo Harding (Nielsen), a Danish-English translator, seems to have it all: a beautiful country home, a loving family comprised of a doting husband, Rob (Eccleston), plus two children, Finn and Sash (Tom Taylor and Rosy McEwen), and inherited wealth that affords her the freedom to take on social justice causes. But following a potentially fatal fall down a flight of stairs, an entire 12 months suddenly vanishes from Jo’s memory. As she struggles to piece events together, she uncovers secrets that suggest her life may not be quite as perfect as she imagined.
Jo is led to believe — by Rob primarily — that she was drunk when she fell. But was she drunk, or did someone push her? Was there someone else in the house that night? Was she perhaps having an affair with Owen (Jamie Flatters), the handsome gardener, and does that have anything to do with anything? Was Rob having an affair? Did she sleep with her pregnant daughter’s devil-may-care boyfriend, Thomas (Nick Blood)? Is she having a nervous breakdown, and was her fall actually a suicide attempt? Questions upon questions are posed and answered gradually, methodically, but maybe too much so, in a story that perhaps would’ve been better served as a compact 90-minute feature film.
“What the hell have you been up to Jo, and who have you been up to it with?” she asks herself in a voiceover early in the series — a narration that continues throughout. In the roughly five episodic hours that follow, chaos doesn’t quite reign, as much as it jitters. Coincidentally, like in the aforementioned “Antichrist,” a dead child is what largely prompted Jo’s volatile emotional state prior to the fall, providing support for the theory that maybe it may have been a drunkenly attempted suicide, as she and Rob struggled to piece their lives together following the tragedy.
Additionally, Jo, much like Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character in the film, develops a borderline psychotic disorder. She may or may not be having visions, as reality and fantasy, past and present, start to blend, so much that the audience, like Jo, struggles to differentiate, questioning everything she believes she knows about her life, as well as the people in it. She’s at the mercy of whatever truths they uphold.
But a chronologically and spatially disorienting series of events doesn’t automatically translate as narrative complexity.
It’s straightforward genre stuff, and enough exposure to general “women in peril” narratives should quickly straighten any jagged lines “Close to Me” draws in an attempt to complicate its scenario. In both marital mysteries and real life, the woman is more likely to be victimized by an intimate partner than a stranger, but how Jo’s journey toward the truth is crafted becomes far more critical to any appreciation of the series than learning the truth. (Speaking of “Antichrist,” it thankfully doesn’t involve a sinister Satanic conspiracy.)
If there’s any suspense to be juiced out of the experience, it’s not at all helpful that Rob’s suspicious behavior, as depicted from the first episode, paints a portrait of a man boxed into a corner, even if the reasons for this aren’t immediately clear. His involvement becomes obvious early enough that the only logical path to salvaging the series would’ve been if its lengthy set-up was all a ruse. Sadly, catharsis comes rather cheap, despite eleventh-hour wrinkles; one of them being a replay of Jo’s “missing” year as seen through Rob’s eyes, revealing what she can’t remember, or just never knew.
Momentum picks up a bit in those final two episodes, which can be collectively titled “Rob’s Unraveling,” and Eccleston is sufficiently razzled, even though it at times feels like he’s gone beyond the extra mile and may be performing for a different series altogether. But it’s forgivable. Nielsen carries much of the load in front of the camera with the combined vulnerability and determination her role requires. She’s also an executive producer, providing further motivation to deliver a satisfactorily tuned performance, as do co-stars Taylor, McEwen, Flatters, and Blood. They are joined by a talented bunch, including Susan Lynch (Jo’s estranged best friend, Cathy), Leanne Best (Rob’s alluring co-worker, Anna), Ellie Haddington (Jo’s eccentric neighbor, Wendy), Ray Fearon (Jo’s concerned boss, Nick), and Henning Jensen (Jo’s father, Frederik). Suffice to say that “Close to Me’s” list of strengths is toplined by the muscle of its actors. It was ultimately up to scribe Angela Pell and director Michael Samuels to push this cracked rock up a moderately steep hill, and it’s just a bit too easy of a trek.
Thematically, the series delves into weighty issues like depression, childhood trauma, paranoia, and amnesia, while flirting with toxic masculinity’s fraught byproducts. With a sprinkle of mermaid mythology, which typically symbolizes renewal — Jo’s in this case — “Close to Me’s” creators may have had something more allegorical in mind, which doesn’t fully translate.
A generous read would summarize the series as a character study of a woman on the brink, but it lacks rigor, relying too much on expository interjections, like repeated flashbacks and nightmares. Additionally, while genre conventions prescribe that clues be gradually teased out, the mystery becomes less of one — even to the untrained eye — the longer the journey goes on, and the ending feels unearned, an unsatisfying whole soon to be forgotten.
Any comparisons to “Antichrist” are not at all to imply that “Close to Me” is in any way a riff on von Trier’s film, but there are a few coincidental ties to it as well as the director’s 2014 film, “Nymphomaniac,” in which Nielsen co-starred. The protagonist in the latter bears a similar, though not grammatically identical first name (Joe, played by Gainsbourg again), is also guided by its lead’s narration, and even opens its early minutes with a visual of Joe, grounded, broken, bloodied, and dazed, staring into a void. “Close to Me” certainly doesn’t have to mimic the Danish provocateur’s typically cynical, bleak style, but it could’ve benefited from his propensity to experiment artistically, especially in a story about personal renewal.
“Close to Me” premiered Thursday, December 16 on Sundance Now and AMC+. New episodes are set to debut weekly with the finale airing Thursday, January 20, 2022.